'Smell Of Death' Lingers In South Sudanese City

Dec 28, 2013
Originally published on December 28, 2013 5:54 pm
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From NPR West, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Arun Rath.


We're going to begin the program today in South Sudan where despite talk of a possible cease-fire, the fighting continues. A power struggle there between the president and his former vice president spiraled into violence along tribal lines. Hundreds have died and tens of thousands are displaced. If not checked, many fear the conflict will become Africa's next civil war.

And among the towns and cities most affected is Malakal in the country's north. NPR's Gregory Warner, who has been covering the conflict, reached Malakal today, and he joins us now on the line. Greg, can you describe what you've seen today?

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: I'll try. You know, it's been really something. Malakal's been completely closed to outsiders since Christmas when the shooting really started. Today was the first day it was possible to get into the airport. As we were driving from the airport to the U.N. base here, where many people have camped out, there were dead bodies on the streets. All the shops are not only looted. They're just empty, burned-out shells. There's a smell of death in the air and a smell of smoke.

There's some people who are burying their dead, but many people are just searching for food because there's just absolutely nothing. On the flip side, though, there is finally a sense of calm, and there were a fair number of people on the streets. Someone said to me, you know, these people have - they've seen war. They were - of course, South Sudan was at war for 21 years, so they know how to seize a moment of opportunity, whether that means grabbing a jerrican full of water from the Nile before the fighting resumes. And there is definitely a fear that the rebels have retreated, but the fighting is not over in Malakal.

RATH: You traveled to Malakal today with the U.N. Are the U.N. peacekeepers able to bring any stability and relief supplies to the displaced?

WARNER: Well, you know, in Malakal, people sought shelter in the U.N. compound. And that happened in cities across South Sudan when the fighting started. Unlike, though, other U.N. compounds, the wall here is just not very high, so the bullets were whizzing through the compound. I met a 6-year-old who'd been shot in the stomach. She was inside the camp. In fact, her father said he didn't know whose bullet it was. Was it a government soldier's or was it anti-government soldier's?

Now, of course, that there's some respite from the fighting, that the rebels have retreated for now, there is a massive humanitarian crisis. You know, Malakal is the second biggest city in South Sudan. It's the capital of the oil rich upper Nile. So all of a sudden, you have 10 to 20,000 people jammed into this compound. It's like a mini city in a place that has no running water, no latrines, a burgeoning cholera crisis, which if it spreads could make all the peacekeepers sick as well. And it really is chaos. People pitching tents into power lines. You know, the U.N. wants to tell these people to go, but the people say, well, we don't feel safe out there. We have to stay here.

RATH: Now, the government offered a cease-fire yesterday and the prospects of talks with the rebels. Is there a possibility that initiative could gain momentum?

WARNER: Well, look. I mean, this dispute is fundamentally political, right? So there's two guys, President Salva Kiir, who's president of the country, and the former vice president Riek Machar. So, really, what both men want is power. And power in South Sudan is just centered in the hands of the president. The president has got all the power. So the fighting was triggered when Salva Kiir, either, you know, rightly or wrongly, depends on who you talk to, felt that some of his former ministers were plotting a coup against him.

Now, of course, there's a lot of diplomatic pressure on these two men. But what they both want is the same thing. They both want to be president. Only one man can. So we hope that there could be some deal worked out between them. It's certainly possible with all the attention. But again, it's hard to resolve the fundamental kind of problem in South Sudan, which is it's a very young democracy. And this is the way power is won - through the gun.

RATH: That's NPR's Gregory Warner in South Sudan. Greg, thank you and take care.

WARNER: Thanks Arun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.