MATHIANG, Feb 3 – Ten days into a South Sudan ceasefire, violated on multiple occasions, the two sides are trading blame for the renewed fighting.
Here in Mathiang, outside Bor, regular troops from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army point to dozens of corpses littering the fields and scattered inside homes.
They claim that all — even those who appear to have sought shelter in thatched-roof homes — are the bodies of rebel fighters, and say the rebels violated the ceasefire one hour after it was signed.
The military base here is a ramshackle area under some trees where soldiers are lounging around on chairs and mattresses, guns to hand.
The SPLA soldiers accuse the rebels, a disparate force of renegade soldiers and ethnic militia who have former vice president Riek Machar, a seasoned guerrilla fighter, as their nominal head, of killing vulnerable civilians.
“They are killing innocent people. They are killing people aged 75 and above,” Lieutenant Robert Majier Manyang told AFP.
“They are not actually fighting the army, they are fighting the civilians,” said Major Deng Maketh, who commands a battalion here.
The mostly bareheaded soldiers, some in fatigues, others in T-shirts and flip flops, walk two abreast alongside the dusty road.
Most carry their belongings in turquoise backpacks handed out by UNICEF to civilians. From time to time small groups, sweat running off their faces, seek shelter from the scorching sun in the shade of a tree.
Empty villages, many with homes burned to the ground, line the road that leads here from the regional capital Bor, a lonely reminder of the tens of thousands who have fled across the White Nile into Awerial County.
The odd military truck that bounces past whips up a storm of yellow dust.
The body of one uniformed soldier lies in the middle of a field, crushed by a tank, its tread marks still visible in the dry earth.
The ceasefire officially came into effect in the evening of January 24.
Meanwhile in the northern oil-producing state of Unity, it is the SPLA that is accused of committing abuses, notably on Saturday when it recaptured Leer, Riek Machar’s home town.
Government soldiers and allied militia “advanced on Leer town on February 1, destroying everything on their path. (President Salva) Kiir’s forces burned down the whole of Leer town and the entire surrounding villages,” a statement from rebel spokesman Lul Ruai Koang said.
There was no independent confirmation that Leer had changed hands.
But medical charity Doctors without Borders (MSF, Medecins sans Frontieres) reported on Friday that a team of its local health workers had taken “several dozen of the most seriously ill patients from Leer hospital with them into the bush, fearing for their safety”.
“Other patients who were well enough to leave of their own accord also fled, and there are no longer any patients or staff left at Leer hospital,” MSF said.
Koang accused the government troops of having hunted down and killed women and children and elderly people who had gone to hide in nearby bush and swampy areas.
‘No strategic importance’
“The latest destruction of Leer town…has no strategic, operational or tactical importance,” the spokesman said, accusing Kiir of having merely derived “satisfaction” from destroying Machar’s home town and killing his relatives and tribesmen.
Since the South Sudan conflict started in mid-December both sides have traded accusations of abuses, with the United Nations and rights groups reporting that both sides have committed atrocities on a large scale.
Thousands have been killed in the conflict, which has pitted forces loyal to Kiir against troops and militia who support Machar, and more than 700,000 people have fled their homes in seven weeks of violence.
The fighting has seen waves of brutal revenge attacks, as fighters and ethnic militia use the violence to loot and settle old scores, with the United Nations and rights workers reporting that horrific atrocities have been committed by both sides.
A ceasefire has theoretically been in place for the past 10 days but the fighting only eased, without ending.
Regional bloc IGAD meanwhile said an advance team of military and civilian experts left Sunday for Juba. The 14-member team will start establishing the verification mechanism that will supervise implementation of the ceasefire.
The team, headed by retired Ethiopian general Gebreegzabher Mebrahtu, is to report back to regional envoys in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa by Friday.