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Risking South Sudan's swamps to escape raging battles

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Booms of battle echo from the frontline of South Sudan's raging conflict, as tens of thousands who have fled the brutal fighting take rest under whatever shade of a tree they can find.

Many recount tales of horror, including civilians mown down with machine guns as they fled, and gunmen torching entire villages and looting the crops.

"They had a machine gun raised up on a sandbank, and they fired and fired and fired as we swam," said Gabriel Bol, a cattle herder. "The bullets were hitting the water, but we knew we could not stop or they'd shoot us."

Like thousands of others, he and his four young children risked crossing the crocodile-infested White Nile river to flee the key town of Bor, capital of war-torn Jonglei state.

Some 80,000 have fled the rebel-held Bor region to once sleepy villages since violence erupted over three weeks ago, according to the United Nations.

The fighting has taken the world's youngest nation to the brink of all-out civil war.

"Many were killed in the water. We floated downstream... then we came across, swimming from island to island to escape," Bol said, as he waited in a long line for food and blankets donated by aid agencies, including Oxfam and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

"We came only in the clothes we had, nothing else."

Thousands of exhausted civilians are crowding into the fishing village of Minkammen, a once-tiny riverbank settlement of a few thatch huts 25 kilometres (20 miles) southwest of Bor across vast green swamplands of the Nile.

Children cool off from the fierce heat by diving into the waters of the Nile, as their mothers cook up meals from grain handed out from the aid agencies.

Sounds of fighting can be heard from across the wide river.

Killings and homes torched

Fighting in South Sudan began on December 15 as a clash between army units loyal to the President Salva Kiir and those supporting his former deputy, Riek Machar. It has since escalated into a conflict between government troops and a loose alliance of ethnic militia forces and mutinous army commanders.

"They looted everything in the town, there were many killed in the fighting," said Samuel Chiek Aler, an elderly priest from Bor, now living in the thin shade of small tree.

Some say violence is worse than even one of the most notorious episodes in South Sudan's painful history, when during the two decades long civil war against the government in Khartoum, rival rebel forces turned on each other in 1991, culminating in a brutal massacre in Bor.

Elderly grandmother Nyanwut Bior says the recent fighting was more brutal.

"They killed our family, they killed our people, they burnt our home, they burnt our crops," said Bior, who comes from a small village outside Bor.

"The first war (1991) was better, because that time we didn't have to leave our homes."

Some have risked a crossing from Bor by boat, travelling at night and drifting at times without engines to slip through frontlines and avoid being attacked by either government or rebel forces.

"We came through safely on the boat, with about a hundred others," said John Kur, sitting in the shade of a tree, where he and his family had set up home -- a plastic mat as a bed, and mosquito nets tied from branches.

"Other boats have been fired at."

Aid workers are busy digging latrines and providing clean water.

"It's the single biggest site of displaced civilians we have... the result of an exodus from the city of Bor," said Toby Lanzer, United Nations humanitarian chief in South Sudan, speaking in the capital Juba.

"So much needs to be done... we've been sending trucks up there, simple things like blankets and mats."

On the ground, aid workers are trying to ensure that people remain as healthy as they can.

"We are setting up a system to chlorinate water so it is good to drink," said Lam Jordan, Oxfam's emergency coordinator in the village, as he worked on putting two giant bladders of water by the muddy banks of the river.

Despite being close to the fighting, those displaced appear to be relaxed, believing the wide swamps offer a safe haven and an escape from the battles.

"The river is a good boundary, but the conflict is not far away," said John Parach, local coordinator for the government's relief agency. "People keep coming every day, we are doing out best to support them."

But those who fled are deeply bitter.

"I'm never going back," said Bol. "Even if they sign a peace deal, I can't trust these people after I what I saw them do."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/140109/risking-south-sudans-swamps-escape-raging-battles