'They are killing civilians house to house': Crowded UN camp filled with horror stories

Margaret Evans reports from a massive UN-guarded tent city in Wau, where more than 40,000 people have sought temporary refuge from the brutal violence of South Sudan's civil war.

Inside a tent city where more than 40,000 people have sought refuge from South Sudan's civil war

It looks like something out of a science fiction film: a post-apocalyptic hell that is both prison and sanctuary rolled into one.

The people who live inside the dry and dusty labyrinth of scarecrow tents sometimes hang their laundry out on the barbed wire that rings the camp and is punctuated by guard towers manned by soldiers from the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, or UNMISS.

It's what's known as a "protection of civilians" site and lies in the old slave-traders city of Wau, capital of the northwestern state of the same name. 

More than 40,000 people have sought refuge here from a brutal civil war increasingly described as tribal or ethnic in nature.

Tents and other makeshift shelters as far as the eye can see. With about 25,000 new internally displaced people packed into the Wau POC camp and grounds of the cathedral in just the past few weeks, overcrowding has put a strain on health and sanitation. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

"What is for sure [is] there are many people who have been killed because of their ethnic affiliation or along ethnic lines," said Eugene Nindorera, the top UN human rights official on the ground in South Sudan.   

Originally from Burundi, he fears where the conflict may be headed.

"I think based on my own experience, I'm always afraid how a population can be manipulated," he said, "especially on these ethnic issues."

Eugene Nindorera, the top UN human rights official on the ground in South Sudan, says many people have been killed because of their 'ethnic affiliation.' (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Nindorera, who is based in the capital Juba, travelled northwest to Wau on a fact-finding mission in mid-April after reports that mainly Dinka government soldiers were carrying out revenge attacks against civilians from other tribes after a rebel ambush.

Angelina Michael, 27, was a picture of angry defiance as she described her brother's final moments after soldiers in government uniforms burst into their family home near Wau.

Angelina Michael says she was in her home when uniformed soldiers shot her brother in the chest. She managed to escape with her four children. She says she doesn’t see much of a future for her young country. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Michael says they confronted her brother as he came out of the shower and demanded money. When he said he didn't have any, they accused him of supporting the rebels and shot him. She and her four children escaped, leaving his body in the house.

"If it weren't for the kids, I would have gone back," she said. "Even if it meant dying."

'Killing civilians house to house'

You can hear similar stories all across the camp, just by lifting up tent flaps and lending an ear.

Urbana Wol rushed back from Juba when he heard the news of the attack on Wau and its surrounding area and immediately moved his family, including his wife and newborn son, from their village into the POC camp.

"They say we are supporting rebels," he said. "That is why they are killing civilians house to house."

Urbana Wol is seen here with his wife, son and baby son, who was born just days before the government’s April 10 assault in Wau. 'I come here to protect my children and my life,' he says. 'I don’t feel OK, but I do not have alternative.' (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Thousands of frightened people have also taken refuge on the grounds of the Catholic cathedral in Wau, the biggest in all of South Sudan.

The women here fear venturing outside the church grounds even to try to make it to the POC camp down the road.

"Children are being killed, women are being raped and men are being shot," said a woman on the church grounds.

South Sudan has become a nation of divided families and lost souls in its nearly six years of existence, with people blown across its hot, flat plains by war, cruelty and now, growing hunger.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization estimates about half of South Sudan's population, roughly five million people, is at risk because of a lack of food security.

Boys haul water in the cramped camp in Wau. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

The first POC camp was created back in 2013 after President Salva Kiir accused his vice-president, Riek Machar, of plotting a coup against him.

The country quickly descended into civil war and people sought out UN bases for protection.

Atrocities 'committed by both sides' 

Since then, the conflict has been increasingly driven along ethnic lines, mainly pitting Kiir's Dinka tribe against Machar's Nuer.

Nindorera says atrocities are being committed by both sides, but that the government bears greater responsibility because of its position. 

"According to us, the majority of the violations have been committed by the government forces," he said.   

The government flatly denies it. In an interview, Kiir spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny denounced the people of the POC camp in Wau as liars who want to immigrate to the West and accused Western journalists of writing their stories without leaving their hotel rooms.

Ateny Wek Ateny, spokesman for President Salva Kiir, says the people staying in the UN's POC camp in Wau are liars. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

He also insisted the conflict has not become ethnic in nature.

"It will take an ethnic dimension if this government collapses," he warned. "Very clearly. Because this government is a government of national unity."

The POC camps would seem a rebuttal of that. So frightened are the temporary residents of what goes on outside their flimsy defences that the camps are in danger of becoming permanent fixtures. 

And in the words of Eugene Nindorera, they can't all be lying.

Approximately 200,000 people live in six POC camps across South Sudan, which are guarded by UN soldiers. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)


Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.