Battle for Melut, humanitarian sanctuary in South Sudan

With soldiers roaming deserted streets, displaced population shelters at nearby UN base in the aftermath of fighting.

| | War & Conflict, Africa, South Sudan

Melut, South Sudan - The town of Melut, in South Sudan's troubled Upper Nile state, has been destroyed, with heavily armed soldiers roaming the littered streets.

A three-day battle took place here from May 18 between government forces (SPLA) and rebels aligned with a freshly defected army general, Johnson Olony.

The population of the town and surrounding area - over 49,000 people - fled into the bush or escaped north. They knew the violence was coming as Olony advanced from the state capital Malakal towards the oil-producing hub of Paloich.

Melut lay in the middle, on the banks of the River Nile.

Melut was previously a sanctuary hosting displaced communities from across Upper Nile and its borderlands with Sudan. Many humanitarian agencies operated out of the town, implementing diverse health, nutrition, education and agricultural projects for the thousands of displaced people sheltering there.

The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has a base on the outskirts of the town.

When the battle came, the humanitarian corps retreated to the UNMISS base and endured several days of heavy shelling around the base before evacuating the town along with the UN civilian staff.

They left a battalion of 125 Indian peacekeepers to guard the base and to protect around 1,600 internally displaced persons (IDPs) who had sought shelter in an adjoining UN-protected camp.

The base was caught in the crossfire, with mortar rounds, bullets and shrapnel penetrating the perimeter. Eight IDPs were killed inside the camp over the course of the battle. IDPs said their only shelter was a shallow ditch where they lay for many hours.

While humanitarian workers are now beginning to return to Melut to recover what remains of their projects, an UNMISS spokesperson said the UN will not return their civilian staff until the security situation improves.

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