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Fear pulses through crowded S. Sudan refugee camp

Monday - 12/30/2013, 6:38am  ET

Displaced people gather around a water truck to fill containers at a United Nations compound which has become home to thousands of people displaced by the recent fighting, in the capital Juba, South Sudan Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013. Some 25,000 people live in two hastily arranged camps for the internally displaced in Juba and nearly 40,000 are in camps elsewhere in the country, two weeks after violence broke out in the capital and a spiralling series of ethnically-based attacks coursed through the nation, killing at least 1,000 people. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

JASON STRAZIUSO
Associated Press

JUBA, South Sudan (AP) -- The women and girls leave the main United Nations refugee camp here during the day. The men do not. To exit is to risk death, they say.

Whether true or not, such claims show the level of fear that pulses through the main U.N. camp for internally displaced people here two weeks after violence broke out in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, and a spiraling series of ethnically-based attacks coursed through the nation, killing at least 1,000 people.

Some 25,000 people live in two hastily arranged camps in Juba, and nearly 40,000 are in camps elsewhere in the country. The government says those in the camps -- who are mostly from the Nuer tribe -- can leave and will be perfectly safe. The men here do not believe it.

"It is very hard to go outside because there are people watching," said Wuor Khor, a 29-year-old graduate of Juba University, who was selling bottles of water sitting in a bucket of ice on the camp's ad hoc main thoroughfare. "They follow you wherever you are going and then they kill you."

They, in this case, are members of the Dinka, the majority tribe from which President Salva Kiir hails. In this camp the Nuer, South Sudan's second largest tribe, feel part of a targeted minority after former Vice President Riek Machar, a Nuer, was accused of a coup attempt on Dec. 15 and fighting -- often ethnically motivated -- broke out.

"It has happened several times," Khor continued. "You will not go beyond the gate. If you don't speak Dinka language you will be killed."

Although the violence here in Juba has largely quieted down, rebels control the oil city of Bentiu, and Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, remains under threat of attack from Nuer youth, though the government on Sunday said most of a column of 25,000 men marching on Bor have disbanded and returned home.

The Juba camp numbers swell at night, the facility's leaders say. Women and children may go out during the day to buy food. They return when the sun sets.

The camp is a U.N. military and logistics hub where many of the Nuer in Juba rushed for safety. As the numbers rapidly swelled to the thousands it became a mess. Trash lay everywhere. Open defecation took place. Things have improved: Trash is now collected. Latrines have been dug, but not quite enough yet, said Liny Suharlim, an official with the French aid group ACTED, which is now running the camp.

Makeshift tents are constructed out of towels, sheets and sticks. Wet clothes are draped on barbed wire fence. People sitting in plastic chairs sell pastries, water and a charge for a mobile phone. Dishes are rinsed in tubs of mud-brown sludge. Camouflaged military planes land at the airport runway only a football field distance away.

The government has visited here but the minister of information, Michael Makuei Lueth, holds some disdain for at least some inside the U.N. fence. "Those in the camps are actually those who decided to rebel here," he said. He blamed false rumors for spreading fear here.

It is clear that some here are traumatized. A man named John sat and stared into the distance, a blank expression on his face. Stephen Nyak, a fellow Nuer who was seeking help for the man, approached an Associated Press journalist in hopes of getting assistance.

Nyak, relaying John's story, said the man was caught in a group of Nuer early in the morning of Dec. 16, hours after the violence first erupted. Nearly all of the men in the group -- said to number close to 300 -- were shot and killed, though John survived. John says he survived the fusillade of bullets but was forced to drink the blood from a dead body near him, before the gunmen let him free, Nyak said. Whether the story was true, it was clear John was not well. Suharlim called for assistance from an aid worker from Nonviolent Peaceforce, a group working in the camp, who took John to somewhere private to talk.

Nyak said the men in the camp fear for their lives.

"They are still killing people on the street. Even the day before three people were killed," said Nyak, a former worker with a state government in Unity state. "I will stay here until the U.N. finds a way to get me to my state."

Another man approaches and tells of how he can no longer reach his friend, who left Juba by road but no longer answers his phone. He fears the worst.

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