Bentiu – What was once Bentiu, the gateway to South Sudan’s oil fields, is now a cluster of bullet-riddled buildings and piles of scrap metal, its ghostly avenues abandoned.
Residents of the town have long since decamped to a well-ordered grid of mud dwellings ringed by sewage, where they live in wretched limbo after three years of war, too scared to leave.
Some 120,000 people living in the camp fear that if they leave their ethnicity would make them a target for government soldiers.
After years of fighting and atrocities, control by government forces has brought a fragile peace to Bentiu, but many of the town’s displaced say they have nowhere to go and still rely on UN peacekeepers for protection.
“What needs to be done is immense, in terms of development, in terms of building institutions, building everything, basically,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi told reporters after visiting Bentiu.
Outside the wire
After the civil war erupted in December 2013, forces loyal to President Salva Kiir fought with soldiers aligned with his former deputy Riek Machar for control of Bentiu.
Since then, tens of thousands of people have died across South Sudan and more than a third of the population has fled, turning towns like Bentiu into wastelands.
Bentiu was a hub for an oil industry which many hoped would pay for the country’s development after its 2011 independence from Sudan.
But the only sign of that promise now is a handful of derelict gas stations, one of which houses the carcass of an armoured personnel carrier.
Conditions in the camp — which is adjacent to a UN base, or protection of civilians (PoC) site — aren’t much better.
The site itself is a collection of mud-and-tarp houses arranged in blocks and bracketed by trenches of slimy green sewage that serve as playgrounds for children, and which occasionally swallow errant footballs.
Community leaders complain there is not enough to distract the young men from leaving to become thieves or fighters.
‘I’d lose my life easily’
Almost all of the camp’s residents belong to Machar’s Nuer ethnic group whereas the government soldiers outside the walls are seen as loyal to Kiir’s Dinka ethnicity.
While they complain about the site’s conditions, the displaced say they face death if they leave.
“It’s a government-patrolled area. I’m a Nuer. Definitely, I’d lose my life easily,” Bator Keah told AFP when asked what would happen if he left the site.
Sometimes leaving can’t be avoided.
Women mount expeditions to find firewood for cooking. In the bush and alone, they risk being raped.
“If they see a young girl like me, they will quickly come,” said Nyadak Puok who has been in the camp since 2014.
Aid agencies have given construction materials to people who can live safely in town, and the UN has sent peacekeepers out with women looking for firewood.
But for Bentiu to get back to normal, residents agree there needs to be peace.
That’s something no aid agency can provide.
“I’m not the one who will bring peace to this country,” Grandi told a group of community leaders in the camp.
“Peace to this country will be brought by its leaders.”