MALAKAL, South Sudan (Reuters) – Yellow flowered vines crawl through empty window frames and up crumbling brick walls. Electricity poles are slanting along the road, cables hanging dead from their arms. The sign for Malakal’s city council is riddled with bullet holes.
South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and rebel groups may well have signed a peace agreement on Wednesday to end a civil war that has killed at least 50,000 people, but those who have fled the country’s second largest city, a merchant hub turned ghost-town, are still fearful of going back.
Josephine Adiemis, who lives with her family of eight in a nearby camp run by the United Nations, does not believe it is safe yet to go back home. Squatters may have sneaked into her house amid the chaos, the 42-year-old said.
“There is no peace now. If I go back before peace implementation, I will maybe be killed by that person that is still in my house,” Adiemis said, sitting in front of a registration office at the U.N. camp, overlooking hundreds of makeshift houses covered in white plastic sheets.
Simon Pakuang, who ran away from his village near Malakal, situated on the White Nile, can relate to this.
“The fighting broke out, and then so many people were killed. That’s why people ran,” said the 63-year-old, now living in the camp alongside some 25,000 people.
Violence flared up in the area in 2015. South Sudan had plunged into warfare in 2013, two years after independence from Sudan, when a political dispute between Kiir and then vice-president Riek Machar erupted into armed confrontation.
In total, an estimated quarter of South Sudan’s population of 12 million has been displaced and its economy, which heavily relies on crude oil production, ruined.
In Malakal, a former hub for goods shipped to neighboring Sudan, tables lie in abandoned schools, damaged Korans can be seen in abandoned mosques, and cars rot in fields.
The U.N. camp near Malakal was meant to be temporary, said Hazel de Wet, who runs the U.N. mission in Malakal’s Upper Nile region.
She is cautiously optimistic about peace prospects in the area. But before people return from the camp to their homes in Malakal and the surrounding villages, security challenges must be addressed, she said.
“People came to seek protection, and therefore, before they would want to leave, they would want to be assured of their safety and security,” she told Reuters.
Peter Aban Amon, minister of information in the Upper Nile region, said he was encouraging people to go back home.
“Malakal is well managed by the government, which is now functioning,” he said, adding that the city had already seen a slight population growth over the past two years.
However, a glance at the area suggests that most people still prefer the security offered by the heavily guarded U.N camp. Its market is bustling while Malakal’s previously busy market is eerily quiet. Fish caught from the Nile are taken directly to the U.N. market, not the city’s.
Malakal has been site of numerous battles between government SPLA-forces and rebel groups. It has changed hands many times and has been almost completely destroyed in the process.
And for Pakuang, the time to go back has not arrived yet.
When he visited his village to look for his house in May last year, he was happy to see that it had not been wrecked in the crossfire – but surprised to find it occupied.
The squatters asked him if he wanted his house back, but he said no. Instead, Pakuang asked them to take care of his home until he feels safe enough to resume his old life.
“I told them: please keep it clean and please don’t destroy it.”