Nearly half the population of the world’s newest nation, South Sudan, is in danger of going hungry. New atrocities are reported almost every day. And more than 1.5 million people have fled their homes, the vast majority to swampland villages where they hope rising waters during the rainy season will keep them safe from marauding soldiers.
“There is no more country,” said John Khamis, 38, who has spent much of his nation’s existence sheltered in a camp on a United Nations base. “I don’t know how the fighting stops now.”
It has been less than two years since a power struggle between the nation’s leaders plunged South Sudan into chaos, inflaming old ethnic tensions that almost immediately tore this new country apart.
Despite repeated attempts at peace, some of the deadliest fighting of the civil war has erupted in the last few months.
The warring leaders are unflinchingly entrenched in their positions, and the kinds of abuses that shocked the world early in the conflict, including the use of child soldiers and deliberate attacks on civilians, are reoccurring with new ferocity.
“The details of the worsening violence against children are unspeakable,” the director of Unicef, Anthony Lake, said in a statement this week. “Survivors report that boys have been castrated and left to bleed to death. Girls as young as 8 have been gang raped and murdered. Children have been tied together before their attackers slit their throats. Others have been thrown into burning buildings.”
Even the spokesman for the military, the South Sudanese Liberation Army, acknowledged that the conflict was pointless.
“This is a senseless war,” said the spokesman, Col. Phillip Guarang.
Chol Garkouth, 15, can barely remember how his family celebrated his country’s independence from Sudan four years ago. He does not know about the support the United States gave to South Sudan’s creation, the eight peace deals that have collapsed since his fledgling nation quickly spiraled into civil war, or even much about the politics fueling the fire.
But he knows why he picked up a gun.
“All the other boys my age were going to fight,” Chol, 15, said from his hospital bed, bleary-eyed, a bullet wound in his leg. “I wanted to go fight with them.”
Many observers argue that the humanitarian crisis seems to get worse by the day.
The country’s economy is in free fall, and the cost of food, gas and other essentials has skyrocketed.
By April, 3.8 million people did not have enough food. Within a month, that number had grown by nearly a million.
“A staggering number of people are going hungry,” said Joyce Luma, the director of the World Food Program in South Sudan.
So many people are seeking refuge that in one village north of the city of Malakal, Wau Shilluk, the population has exploded to more than 39,000 from 3,000. For more than a month, no aid could get there because of the fighting, and children described going as many as five days without a meal.
International aid groups had to cancel repeated trips last week because of shelling and clashes. Finally, aid workers went despite the risks, but on the way back gunmen shot at one of the boats — though it was clearly marked with an aid group’s flag — forcing workers to dive for cover and speed back to port.
George Fominyen, the spokesman for World Food Program here, said it was a race against time to deliver food and other supplies before the heavy rains.
“When you look at the map and the stretches of land these people crossed to survive, you have to ask how in the world did they make it there alive,” he said of the displaced masses.
Tens of thousands have sought refuge in United Nations camps, many for more than a year. The compounds were never built to house refugees, but are now taking on a feeling of permanence.
Here in Malakal, more than 7,000 people have arrived in the last two months, swelling the compound’s population to more than 30,000.
With families piled on families, much of the camp has become an open sewer. The fighting has kept supplies from arriving from the capital, and there are shortages of just about everything.
United Nations officials say they face an impossible choice: open their doors to the desperate, or let people die.
This is a far cry from what international officials envisioned when the decades of war between northern and southern Sudan ended and a peace treaty was reached in 2005, paving the way for independence from Sudan.
In 2011, when South Sudan voted to separate from Sudan, the leaders of the new nation’s two largest ethnic groups — the Dinka and the Nuer — joined in forming a government.
Then, in December 2013, President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, accused his former vice president, Riek Machar, a Nuer, of plotting a coup. The two had a history of hostility dating back decades, and their personal political struggle quickly swallowed the country, setting off a new round of violence.
The fighting spread from the capital and has been most intense in two regions where there are oil fields.
For Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar, it is not just territory that they are trying to control. They need alliances with the nation’s many other ethnic groups.
So when the militia leader of one of the nation’s largest groups, the Shilluk, broke from the government in May and began an assault on the towns leading to the last remaining working oil fields in the country, it represented a major blow to Mr. Kiir’s hold on power. The vast majority of the nation’s budget comes from oil.
“They were very close to taking the oil fields,” Colonel Guarang said of the rebel advance. To get there, the rebels had to take Malakal.
The fighting raged just outside the camp, and the burned remains of cars sit just beyond the fence. Farther north, the town of Melut was leveled, and aid workers were stranded for days. Their warehouses and supply depots were ransacked and looted.
Villages were torched; hundreds of thousands fled to the bush; and untold numbers of civilians were killed.
The opposing forces now sit on opposite sides of the Nile, occasionally lobbing mortar shells at each other, the bombs flying over this camp and the civilians huddled for safety.
Before the spring offensive, the last major fighting in this area was over a year ago. Malakal had changed hands at least eight times. But as fighting eased in recent months, some people had started to go back to the city, opening a market and hoping to rebuild lost lives.
Lual Ukuach, 43, said his brother and his children all were in Malakal when the latest round of clashes erupted.
“The troops, they came and they asked if you were Shilluk,” Mr. Ukuach said. The wrong answer resulted in a bullet, he said.
“I lost five members of my family, including my blood brother,” he said.
In the latest round of fighting, government forces also began an offensive in Unity State, with reports suggesting that they had reached Mr. Machar’s hometown, Leer.
“Eyewitness accounts reported targeted rape and killing of civilians, including children,” according to a statement by the United Nations. It has accused all sides of abuses, adding that combatants were preventing human rights workers from documenting what has taken place in the past two months.
Colonel Guarang said the government was not keeping anyone out of places where there had been fighting, and welcomed an investigation. Representatives for Mr. Machar could not be reached for comment, but his supporters argued that the fault lay with the government.
Colonel Guarang blamed criminals for any violations of human rights attributed to the government, but said he, too, supported accountability — just not yet.
“You cannot account when the war is on,” he said. “How do you get the suspects from both sides when the war is flaming.”
Still, he conceded that there was a major problem with “indiscipline” fueled by alcohol.
While exact figures are impossible to determine, international officials and human rights activists say tens of thousands of people have been killed since 2013.
“For more than 17 months, women, men and children have been senselessly suffering through an entirely man-made catastrophe,” the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, said in late May.
“And now, over the past few weeks,” he added, “the opposing parties have actually managed to make a terrible situation much, much worse.”
The government has not reacted well to criticism.
After the United Nations’ chief relief coordinator, Toby Lanzer, offered a scathing critique of the government, he was expelled from the country this month. A presidential spokesman, Ateny Wek Ateny, said Mr. Lanzer was kicked out because his comments were bad for morale.
“Toby Lanzer’s statement was not giving hope to the people of South Sudan,” he told reporters at a news conference last week.
More than a dozen Western diplomats and officials, speaking on background because peace talks are underway, expressed thinly veiled disgust with the situation.
“Both Machar and Kiir know that total victory is impossible; they know they cannot kill everyone from the other side,” one Western official said. “What is happening now is that all the parties are trying to secure as strong a position as possible before the rainy season comes and the fighting stops.”
While many hold out little hope for a lasting deal, it would not be the first time the two main rivals had fought and then reconciled.
In 1991, Mr. Machar split from Mr. Kiir’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Forces under his command then killed hundreds of Dinka in the town of Bor, setting off an ethnic clash similar, though smaller in scale, to the one playing out today.
Still, after the peace deal was struck in 2005, Mr. Machar and Mr. Kiir allied once more. The two lived in homes just across the street from each other in Juba.
Mr. Machar’s home now sits empty, the damage where it was struck by a tank shell still evident.
Dak Ongin, 54, remembers the day peace was declared in South Sudan in 2005, and when the country declared its independence six years later, becoming the world’s newest nation.
“I was hoping that peace would last forever,” he said, sitting atop a mound of earth and rotting trash at the United Nations compound.
In the distance, beyond the barbed-wire fence, lay his home in Malakal and an untold number of dead relatives and friends.
Mr. Ongin no longer expects peace.
“If the government keeps misbehaving, we will tear down this fence and take back the town ourselves,” he said.
By MARC SANTORA JUNE 22, 2015, THE NEW YORK TIMES