Thousands Are Fleeing South Sudan's New Rebellion

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Refugee shelters in Bitima village. Hundreds of refugees from South Sudan have found shelter in this small Congolese village near the border. Families, mostly women and children, have fled the conflict that erupted around Yambio and other areas of Western Equatoria. They have no place to go, and no money to go further. UNHCR/Colin Delfosse

This story was published as part of a reporting partnership between UNHCR and Newsweek.

One evening while he was still celebrating the birth of his first son a week earlier, Philip Bati answered a knock on the door at home in the South Sudanese city of Yambio.

Expecting well-wishers, Bati instead found men with guns on his doorstep demanding money. It had been an expensive week since his son's birth, and Bati, 35, was broke. He had no chance but to plead for his life.

"He was shot right at the door, since he had nothing to give them," says his wife, Faustina Joseph, who was next door at the time, showing off the baby to the neighbors. "They pushed his body inside, blocked the door and set fire to the house, burning him with it."

Yambio is far from South Sudan's swamps and savannas to the north and east, which have been ravaged in the country's two-year rebellion. That fighting, between its government and forces loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar, has killed at least 10,000 people and driven 2.3 million from their homes, stoking catastrophic hunger, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network.

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Faustina Joseph with her 5-month-old baby, who was born in South Sudan. The baby is sick, and she has no money to go to the hospital. Her husband, Philip Bati, died in an attack. UNHCR/Colin Delfosse

Lawlessness has been sweeping the world's newest nation—South Sudan won independence just four years ago—and the relative peace in the country's Western Equatoria state has now been shattered. Separate from the country's "main" civil war, this new rebellion pits an anti-government militia against the national army. Civilians, as so often, are the victims.

Until recently, the south of the country was peaceful. But those fleeing say violence has now spread there too. After her husband's death, Faustina, 35, grabbed her children and fled south to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where they now live in a makeshift refugee encampment in a village called Bitima, close to the South Sudan border.

The refugees—perhaps 300 of them—are huddled in a clutch of palm-frond shelters down by the overgrown soccer field. The smoke of cooking fires smoldering beneath near-empty pots hangs in the air, making children cough.

Mboringba, Faustina's once-healthy son, is in a bed at the rudimentary clinic with acute malnutrition. Her daughter has malaria. The family is among tens of thousands of victims of a surge in killings, rapes, child abductions and lootings that is driving a new Central African refugee crisis, barely noticed internationally despite the fact that it has spilled across the borders of four countries.

At night, rebels steal out from their rural strongholds into state-controlled towns, raping women and girls, looting property and kidnapping children. Those who resist, like Bati did, are killed. During the day, the army retaliates, targeting real or imagined rebel supporters.

"They pushed his body inside, blocked the door and set fire to the house, burning him with it."

The fighting in Yambio began in May 2015 and spiked again in August, around Christmas and the New Year, and most recently again in the middle of February.

A two-hour drive through dense rain forest south of Bitima is Dungu, the largest town in northeastern Congo. Hundreds more South Sudanese refugees have arrived there. James Wamwite, a mechanic from Yambio, came on February 14. It had been three days since the latest fighting left his great-grandmother dead—her throat slit—as well as his house burnt to the ground and his business looted.

Wamwite slipped across the border riding a motorbike with his four young children clinging on behind him, forced to leave his terrified wife and their newborn baby in the care of relatives.

"You may not believe me, but if you move around parts of Yambio today, what you will find everywhere is the smell of dead bodies, the graves of people who have been burnt, houses turned to ashes," says James, 33, the strain of sleepless nights etched on his face.

"One of the things happening that is hard to describe is they come and knock at your door, then they come in and tie you down and rape your wife or your young girls in your presence. The hard thing to know is, who is doing this?" he asks. "There are so many people with guns, who is the rebel and who is the soldier? That one we don't know."

Eunice Romai, 29, fled the fighting three days after giving birth, on Christmas Eve, to a daughter she named Chance. Despite still needing medical care, she and her family walked for three days to reach safety, sleeping under trees, without food or medicine, unable even to wash. In the bed next to hers at the hospital where Chance was born was another expectant mother, seven months pregnant.

"She had been raped, by seven men with guns," Eunice says, her voice tight with quiet fury. "I heard they also raped nuns at the Catholic church. This is something really serious. I was born and grew up in South Sudan when it was at war, and I never saw things like this. I never heard guns like we were hearing every night there."

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Eunice Romai and her baby Chance. She fled from Yambio village in South Sudan with her husband, Ali Baba, and their six kids. After seeing attacks and rapes in her neighborhood, she decided to flee despite the fact that she had just given birth. UNHCR/Colin Delfosse

"I was born and grew up in South Sudan when it was at war, and I never saw things like this."

The help these people now need to survive in Congo—itself ravaged by years of wars, militia rebellions and a careless government—is slowly increasing, but aid resources are stretched thin among other crises.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Congolese authorities expected to individually register more than 4,000 South Sudanese refugees during visits to the remote areas of northern Congo in late February and early March. UNHCR has already distributed essential items like pots, soap and water cans, while the World Food Program has given food, and additional aid is coming.

Similar efforts are under way in other parts of Africa where those displaced by this crisis have fled—in South Sudan itself, and in the Central African Republic and Uganda.

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Emmanuel, 13, builds his own shelter with palm trees in Bitima. UNHCR/Colin Delfosse

A great deal more is needed, says Josselyn Midadje, a UNHCR protection officer who is leading the registration operation in Congo. "What is important to do to save human lives now is for the international community to turn their eyes to this crisis and give it the same attention as the Libyan crisis, or the crisis in Syria that we talk about so much," she says.

"This South Sudan crisis is one nobody talks about. These are really harsh conditions for these people, and I think in terms of shelter, food and medicine, we need to intervene very quickly," he says.

Children, targeted by the militia, continue to struggle even if they have reached safety. Michael Agima, a 17-year-old who was at the top of his class in science and wanted to be an engineer, saw boys in his class kidnapped to be child soldiers. Once abducted, rebel commanders forced them to call on friends, tricking them to come out and be taken hostage as well. "I'm worried because I don't think I can finish my schooling now," he says. "But I could not stay there to be a soldier." Agima is now with an uncle and his family, living with strangers at a house in Dungu.

"This South Sudan crisis is one nobody talks about."

Victoria Miidie, 16, who is with her family in a borrowed hut in Dungu, saw her friends being taken by the rebels too. "Some were being raped, some were being forced to cook for the gunmen," she says. "If you refuse, maybe they cut off your head or shoot you dead there in the bush."

The trauma of the survivors is intense, and each is left to cope in his or her own way. Justine Underete says that one day in January when her husband was away, the front room of her home in Yambio became a front line during a gunbattle. She took her children and fled to Congo, and has not heard from him since.