RENK, South Sudan — Tens of thousands of exhausted people are heading to the world’s youngest country as they flee a brutal conflict in neighboring Sudan.
There’s a bottleneck of men, women and children camping near the dusty border of Sudan and South Sudan, and the international community and the government are worried about a prolonged conflict.
Fighting between Sudan’s military and a rival militia killed at least 863 civilians in Sudan before a seven-day ceasefire began Monday night. Many in South Sudan are concerned about what could happen if the fighting next door continues.
“After escaping danger, there’s more violence,” said South Sudanese Alwel Ngok, sitting on the ground outside a church. “There’s no food, no shelter. We’re totally stranded, and I’m very tired and need to leave,” she said.
Ngok thought she’d be safe returning home after fleeing clashes in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, where she saw three of her relatives killed. She and her five children arrived in Renk, South Sudan, where people were sheltering on the ground, some sleeping with their luggage piled up near thin mats. Women prepared food in large cooking pots as teenagers roamed aimlessly. Days after Ngok and her family arrived, she said, a man was beaten to death with sticks in a fight that began with a dispute over water.
Years of fighting between government and opposition forces in South Sudan killed almost 400,000 people and displaced millions until a peace agreement was signed nearly five years ago. Enacting a solid peace has been sluggish: The country has yet to deploy a unified military and create a permanent constitution.
Large-scale clashes between the main parties have subsided, but there is still fighting in parts of the country.
South Sudan has billions in oil reserves that it moves to international markets through a pipeline that runs through Sudan in territories controlled by the warring parties. If that pipeline is damaged, South Sudan’s economy could collapse within months, said Ferenc David Marko, a researcher at the International Crisis Group.
However, the most immediate concern is the tens of thousands of South Sudanese who are returning with no idea of how they’ll get home to their towns and villages. Many are unable to afford the trip. Aid groups and the government are stretched for resources they can use to help.
Some 50,000 people have crossed into the border town of Renk, many sheltering in stick huts along the road and in government buildings throughout the city. Some wander aimlessly in the market, desperately asking foreigners how to get home. People are arriving faster than they can be taken to new locations.
The longer they stay, the greater the risk of fighting between communities, many with longstanding grievances stemming from the civil war. Many are frustrated because they don’t know what lies ahead.
The power struggle in South Sudan between President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and Vice President Riek Machar, a Nuer, took on an ethnic dimension during the civil war. Communities in Renk said the conflict that broke out over water in May and led to the killing of the man with sticks quickly became a wider dispute between the ethnic groups, forcing people to flee once again.
At first, the local government wanted to divide the South Sudanese returning through Renk, based on their place of origin. But aid groups pushed back. Together with the government and community leaders, the aid groups are engaging in peace dialogues.
“We are worried (about more violence),” said Yohannes William, the chairman for the humanitarian arm of the government in Upper Nile state. “The services that (are) being provided here, they are limited.”
Situated at the northernmost tip of South Sudan, Renk is connected to other parts of the country by few roads. The main routes are flights or boat trips along the Nile, and many people can’t afford them.