South Sudan: Renewed fighting in Wau forces exodus

Tens of thousands flee as fighting hits large city, prompting fears that last year’s peace agreement could collapse.

Renewed fighting in one of South Sudan’s largest cities, Wau, has forced tens of thousands of people to flee.

As the sound of gunshots rang out in the background, Al Jazeera interviewed civilians, military officials and doctors working in the area.

South Sudan erupted into civil war in 2013 when President Salva Kiir sacked his deputy Riek Machar barely two years after it seceded from Sudan. Machar has since been reappointed as part of a peace deal. 

Dozens of people have been killed and more than 120,000 forced to flee their homes, though, in a wave of fighting in Wau, almost a year after the deal was was signed.

Clashes between President Kiir’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and members of the Fertit tribe began on June 24, sources in the city said.

The SPLA is predominantly made up of members of the Dinka tribe, the largest in the country.

Families told Al Jazeera that they were unable to sleep out in the bush any longer, where they have been hiding, but added that they would go back into hiding if their new homes witnessed similar violence.

READ MORE: South Sudan – Dozens killed as violence flares in Wau

“There was fighting. They were killing women, they were killing children. They destroyed houses and looted everything,” said Bakhita Tagia, who left her home.

Soldiers loyal to President Kiir said fighting was fierce in Wau, adding that repelling armed groups while protecting civilians is difficult.

Gabriel Jok Riak, a lieutenant general, said: “Instead of ceasing fire, they [armed groups] are increasing hostilities and aggravating it more. We want the international community to advise them.

“Guns are silent elsewhere, but in this particular state, things are deteriorating and furthering the catastrophe.”

READ MORE – South Sudan: The 3-year-old victim of renewed fighting

But soldiers loyal to Vice President Riek Machar say President Kiir’s forces will not let them set up bases in Wau. They insist that they are the ones being attacked.

“They don’t think other people have rights in this country. We all worked together to bring independence of the country. But they have turned against the rest of the people. They think they are born to rule. We will not accept that,” said Major General Ashhab Khamis Fahal Ukanda.

Thousands were displaced when the new fighting started. Some sleep at a UN compound, others are in churches and schools. Many more are hiding in the bush.

“The estimate is around 150,000 people. The entire town has been deserted. Most of the diseases are malaria,” said Vincent Taban, a local doctor.

Riek Machar moved back to the capital Juba in April, after two years in the bush, which was a requirement of the peace deal he signed. Some of his forces, though, say they will remain in the countryside.

READ MORE: Exclusive interview – Machar on South Sudan peace deal

Ukanda, the major general loyal to Machar, did not say how many troops were fighting under him. But Al Jazeera saw several soldiers leave a camp in the city and head to the bush carrying weapons, machetes and food.

The renewed fighting has fuelled rumours of further attacks, with Sudanese people fearful that the peace deal could easily fall apart.

Source: Al Jazeera