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South Sudan War Refugees See Returning Home as Distant Dream

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April 8 (Bloomberg) -- Lucia John Awang has no illusions about returning soon to her home in South Sudan.

A pregnant mother of nine, she’s one of about 80,000 South Sudanese who’ve fled a four-month civil war in the world’s newest nation to camps inside neighboring Ethiopia. Awang, 40, left a United Nations compound where thousands of people were sheltering from the fighting in Malakal, capital of Upper Nile state, in February when rebel forces overran the area. She had to walk for at least 10 days to find refuge.

“This has been a long journey. I imagine the war will take time,” Awang said April 2 as she sat boiling water outside a white tent provided by the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR. She’s living with her family and 23,000 other refugees in Kule camp in Ethiopia’s Gambella region. “Deaths are huge now,” she said of Malakal. “There are no houses. There are bodies in the town.”

The violence in South Sudan started after soldiers clashed at a barracks in the capital, Juba, in December and President Salva Kiir accused his former deputy, Riek Machar, and other officials of plotting a coup. Machar denies the charge. Thousands have been killed in the conflict that has largely pitted Kiir’s Dinka people against the Nuer group that Machar belongs to.

About 860,000 have fled their homes inside South Sudan, close to 10 percent of the population, according to the UN, while another 254,000 have gone to neighboring countries including Uganda, Kenya and Sudan. China National Petroleum Corp., India’s Oil & Natural Gas Corp. and Petroliam Nasional Bhd., the main producers of South Sudan’s oil, evacuated employees because of the fighting.

Eating Leaves

About 1,600 refugees are arriving each day in Ethiopia, the head of UNHCR, Antonio Guterres, said in an April 2 interview at the Pagak border crossing between Ethiopia and South Sudan.

“I had no food, only leaves from trees,” Nyanget Bol, 35, said while breastfeeding her baby. She lost a child, a four-year-old daughter, during the 10-day walk to the border while five others survived.

About 40 percent of children under the age of five who arrive in Ethiopia suffer from “acute malnutrition,” said Challiss McDonough, a spokeswoman for the UN World Food Programme.

“Some of them have been like that for years,” Guterres said. “It’s a combination of extreme poverty with a war that’s driven people to flee.”

Rebel Checkpoints

Inside South Sudan, WFP is using planes, boats and trucks to reach remote areas. It has 25,000 metric tons of food ready in Gambella to truck down the asphalt highway that runs to Pagak and turns into dirt as it enters South Sudan.

Due to flooding and crop failure, Southern Sudanese in Upper Nile, Jonglei and Unity states were the most likely to face starvation even before the conflict began, McDonough said.

With the recent arrivals, Ethiopia is hosting more than 157,000 refugees from South Sudan, according to UNHCR. About 70,000 were in the country before, having fled violence during the war for secession from Sudan before independence in 2011 and or seeking refugee from recent ethnic violence between Nuer and Murle ethnic groups in Jonglei state.

Obstacles such as rebel checkpoints led to transport costs increasing by 25 percent in the past month, while the looting of WFP supplies in the regional capitals of Malakal, Bentiu and Bor resulted in the loss of 4,600 tons, enough to feed 275,000 people for a month, she said.

Road Access

Three-fifths of South Sudan is inaccessible by road during a three-month rainy season that begins in July. The UN has received $315 million of the $1.27 billion it said it needs by June in a February appeal to deal with the crisis.

The refugees at Kule include former regional government and medical workers who are unable to support their families after they lost their jobs.

Bol Deng, 35, used to work in a hospital in Guel Guk in Upper Nile state before soldiers destroyed the facility.

Now Deng, who has a wife and four children, is looking after 15-year-old Gatlok Yangok and his two sisters because their mother was killed two months ago during fighting in Malakal.

Yangok said his 20-year-old brother is a rebel, and his father is missing.

“I don’t know whether he’s dead or alive,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: William Davison in Gambella, Ethiopia at wdavison3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Antony Sguazzin at asguazzin@bloomberg.net Karl Maier, Sarah McGregor