BENTIU, SOUTH SUDAN – Dozens of dead, mangled and bloated bodies line the roadside from the airport into the state capital of one of South Sudan’s oil-producing regions. Houses, buildings and shops have been looted, burned or destroyed, and nearby, blackened cars and buses smolder.
The remnants of war in Bentiu show the damage being done across the world’s newest country, as the military continues to battle men who served in the same ranks only a month ago but who are now labeled rebels. Bentiu was recaptured by the military over the weekend. Next up for government troops is the rebel-held town of Bor.
“What you see here is destruction,” said Gen. James Hoth Mai, the military’s chief of staff. “But the rebels are on the run and we are pursuing them.”
Mai immediately turned his thoughts to Bor: “This is a war and we have a large number of soldiers in Bor. We are putting them there for a final assault.”
Negotiators for the two sides in South Sudan’s nearly month-old conflict met face to face in Addis Ababa on Monday following shuttle diplomacy between the Ethiopian capital and Juba, the capital of South Sudan. A Kenyan mediator, Lazarus Sumbeiywo, said the agenda will include talks on a cessation of hostilities.
In Juba, South Sudan President Salva Kiir canceled a news conference because “there is a new situation emerging in Addis Ababa,” said press secretary Ateny Wek Ateny.
Despite the appearance of diplomatic progress, more violence also looks possible. By boat and truck, South Sudan troops are moving in on Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, just north of Juba. Col. Philip Aguer, South Sudan’s military spokesman, would not say when an attack might begin.
The leader of the rebel troops, former Vice President Riek Machar, led a massacre in Bor in 1991 that saw his ethnic group, the Nuer, attack Kiir’s ethnic group, the Dinka. If government troops can retake Bor — which has already changed hands multiple times over the last month — Machar will be without any major holdings at the negotiating table.
Violence broke out Dec. 15 and quickly radiated across the country, often in ethnic-based attacks. A precise death toll is not known but the International Crisis Group has estimated that nearly 10,000 people have died. The U.N. says nearly 400,000 people have fled their homes.
In Addis Ababa, Lul Ruai Koang, a former brigadier general in the South Sudan military and a spokesman on the Machar side, said pro-Machar forces are again closing in on Malakal, the capital of the country’s other major oil state, Upper Nile. Koang said government forces have attacked rebel positions over the last 48 hours but were repulsed. He said rebels captured trucks, machine guns and a tank.
“It’s unfortunate that Kiir’s forces are on the offensive when priority is given to peace talks currently taking place in Addis Ababa,” Koang said.
During a tour of Bentiu on Sunday, Col. Ajang Mabior said the region has seen ongoing violence the last three weeks. About 30 bodies could be seen rotting in the sun. The country’s information minister, Michael Makuei Lueth, said Sunday that rebels badly damaged petroleum facilities outside Bentiu.
“The rebels won’t come back. They are not very organized and don’t have tanks,” Mabior said. “We recaptured the tanks and have Land Cruisers with mounted weapons. This makes the difference.”
Spilling the secret on how his forces can distinguish themselves from their former colleagues, now rebel forces, Mabior said government troops roll up their left sleeves.
“If we see someone in uniform who does not have their sleeve rolled up we will kill them,” he said.
In the burned-out city center, shopkeeper Adam Ishmael told of how his bookshop was robbed and destroyed. He is one of thousands of people seeking refuge in the U.N. compound in Bentiu.
“I have lost everything, I don’t know what I am going to do,” he said. “It is not safe here even though the fighting is finished.”
George Clooney, the American actor and activist, helps finance a satellite program that watches troop movements and records evidence of attacks in the South Sudan and Sudan region. Recent imagery shows the destruction of civilian homes and market areas in places like Mayom and Bor, the Satellite Sentinel Project said over the weekend.
“Evidence of atrocities against civilians should be collected and used for future prosecution for war crimes. There will be no peace if massive human rights abuses can be committed with no accountability,” Clooney said in a statement.
The Sudan and south Sudan region has suffered from decades of war, with most experts estimating that at least 2 million people have died. The countries agreed to a peace deal in 2005 that led to a 2011 vote that saw South Sudan become the world’s newest country.