South Sudan: Into the long grass

BBC From Our Own Correspondent
Bentiu, South Sudan

The last time I was in Bentiu it was also because of war.

It was April 2012 and newly independent South Sudan – not yet a year old – was fighting with Sudan over an oil field along the disputed border that both nations claimed. The conflict didn’t last long and the few casualties were mostly soldiers.

I stayed at an Ethiopian-run hotel in town. The owners provided good meals and cold beer making their place popular with the handful of foreign correspondents who’d made their way to Bentiu.

We could hear distant artillery, there were an awful lot of soldiers about and the occasional, inaccurately fired missile landed in town but most people were busy ignoring the fighting. There was food and imported goods in the open-air market, fuel in the petrol pumps, the banks, shops, restaurants and hotels were open, and cars and trucks trundled along the crumbling ribbon of tarmac that was – still is – the town’s only paved road.

Showing ingenuity and pragmatism, one mechanic’s workshop was doing a roaring trade welding anti-aircraft guns onto pick-up trucks for dreadlocked Darfuri rebels who were in town to lend the South Sudanese army a hand.

One afternoon I met Riek Machar next to the river. Back then he was South Sudan’s vice president and in town to put a positive spin on his army’s retreat the previous day. Now he’s the rebel leader.

Machar settled his impressive heft into a pair of stacked plastic chairs beneath a mango tree, a gold Rolex watch peeking from his shirtsleeve. He praised his people’s willingness to stand up to Sudan’s army and reminded me that, after decades of conflict, the South Sudanese were used to enduring war.

Their resilience is often needed. I was back in Bentiu again recently, for another war, but a much longer, more destructive and nastier one that’s been going on for nearly two years. Because it’s so close to the oil fields and is home to Machar’s people – the Nuer – Bentiu has been hit hard.

The town was familiar, and yet it wasn’t.

Parts of it looked as if they had been hit by a hurricane: makeshift buildings were flattened and corrugated iron sheets had been tossed about in the long grass that was reclaiming neighbourhoods.

Rusted, burned-out vehicles were scattered about wonkily on their axles, roofs, sides or even ends. Some were burned, some rusted, some strafed with bullets and all stripped of spares. Opposite the army barracks an abandoned tank lay shipwrecked in a swamp. There was another tank–shiny and new–parked on the southern side of the bridge and a camouflaged armoured car in the nearby petrol station.

A former military commander’s three-storey mansion–the grandest building around–was bullet-pocked and abandoned. The minaret of the mosque, where as many as 300 people were massacred last year, loomed over the deserted market.

There were large herds of cows everywhere–the spoils of war–but very few people.

A bank branch near the market was disemboweled. Its air conditioning unit and computer server lay outside next to a ceiling fan and some battered filing cabinets. The electronic signboard for foreign exchange rates bridged a fetid puddle. Inside, the counter glass was spiderwebbed with cracks, the strongroom door was wrenched out of its concrete frame and the safe lay on its side, smashed open and empty.

The bank, vandalised during one of the times Bentiu changed hands between government and rebel forces, was now home to seven separate families who cooked together on the porch and slept together on the floor. They had all fled recent fighting and taken shelter where they could, hoping for safety in numbers.

It was the same for the town’s shops and schools, all repurposed as temporary homes for uprooted families for the surrounding area.

Bentiu had exhaled its residents and inhaled the dispossessed.

Most of the town’s former residents live in a new city, nine miles away, inside the protected perimeter of a United Nations base, the population surging with each fresh outbreak of fighting.

It’s now one of the largest settlements in the country, with 120,000 people. They live in wood-framed shelters with reed walls and plastic sheeting for roofs laid out in neat blocks surrounded by drainage canals, the whole lot carved out of the surrounding swamps and forests.

Step inside its tightly-packed main market and you could be anywhere in South Sudan, and that’s the problem: the bigger this new city gets, the more permanent it feels and the harder it is to believe that life in South Sudan will ever return to normal.