MALAKAL, South Sudan — Behind barbed wire fencing Peter Tap cuts a forlorn figure, one of 27,000 South Sudanese seeking safety at a United Nations base in an area that has suffered some of the country's worst violence since mid-December.
These South Sudanese feel it is too dangerous to return to their homes, despite a truce between the warring factions. Their fear highlights the danger of renewed violence as both sides trade blame for sporadic violations of a ceasefire agreement signed last week in neighboring Ethiopia.
South Sudan's government says it wants some of the alleged coup plotters —including the former deputy president who now commands rebels —to face a treason trial, raising the stakes in an ethnically-charged conflict that recently threatened to plunge the world's newest country into full-blown civil war.
That war appears to have been avoided but South Sudan remains a country on edge —with more than 600,000 people internally displaced by fighting and another 123,000 who fled the country, according to the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. At least 79,000 people have sought shelter at U.N. compounds across South Sudan. Some of them say they see no hope and want to be relocated to another country, according to Valerie Amos, the U.N.'s top humanitarian official.
Amos, the U.N.'s humanitarian chief, on Tuesday visited Malakal, the capital of the oil-producing Unity state, and described the situation there as "unbelievably dire circumstances."
"When we spoke to people they said they'd completely lost faith, they actually wanted to leave altogether, or go to other parts of South Sudan or leave the country," she said.
Amos met with President Salva Kiir on Wednesday to urge a peace deal.
Visiting South Sudan on Thursday, the head of the worldwide Anglican church told reporters in the capital, Juba, that he sensed "the trauma and loss" that is afflicting the whole country. Archbishop Justin Welby said he was in South Sudan to meet clerics and officials including President Salva Kiir and to promote forgiveness and reconciliation.
The town of Malakal, which is now controlled by government forces, has been intensely fought over, and there are fears the rebels could attempt to retake it if the truce doesn't hold. Brig. Lul Kong Ruai, a military spokesman for the rebels, said they had only retreated outside the town and were "surrounding it in all directions." The rebels captured the town on Dec. 26 but then lost it earlier this month.
Tap, the internally displaced man who is sheltering at a U.N. base in Malakal, said he was "stuck" in a camp where food is running short.
"I am totally afraid to go back to Malakal because of the people in uniform," he said. "There are a lot of bodies down there, so there is no guarantee for security."
Both South Sudan's government and rebels have been accused of human rights violations and atrocities that have seen once-bustling towns reduced to ghost towns. The Satellite Sentinel Project, a U.S.-based monitoring group, has released satellite images of the destruction in Malakal that it says is independent evidence of war crimes. The images show neighborhoods reduced to ashes.
The situation in Malakal has been worsened by the looting of warehouses for the International Organization for Migration and the U.N. World Food Program, which estimates a loss of more than 3,700 tons of food, an amount that would have fed 220,000 people for more than a month, according to the U.N, which says at least 3.7 million people are now severely food-insecure.
"It is a disaster right now and we are starting from scratch," said Donovan Naidoo of the International Organization for Migration.
Associated Press reporters Elias Meseret in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Rodney Muhumuza in Kampala, Uganda, contributed to this report.