BENTIU, South Sudan--Although the Republic of South Sudan became independent last July after more than two decades of civil war, the fighting has returned, again over oil rights.
The armed conflict with Sudan has intensified near the border between the two countries, creating the biggest crisis yet between the two new neighbors.
“We are scared, but we have nowhere to go,” said Lucia Juan, a 35-year-old mother in Bentiu in the northern South Sudanese state of Unity, where the air attacks continued.
“We live in fear of the sky, but there is no choice but to stay here with all the family members together.”
South Sudan took control of Heglig, Sudan’s largest oil field, on April 10, claiming the area as its territory. In retaliation, the Sudanese military mounted repeated air attacks on Bentiu and stepped up its counterattack by sending large numbers of troops into Heglig.
The South Sudan military, without full-fledged air support, faced an uphill fight. On April 20, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit announced a withdrawal from Heglig. But the battle failed to die down, with the sounds of air attacks resounding in Bentiu before dawn the following day.
About a week ago, in Bentiu, bombs fell several dozens of meters from Juan's house. She heard three explosions nearby during a meal.
Five people, including a man drinking tea in a hut along a road, were killed. A house next door was wiped out. She ran to a nearby river with her three children.
The bombing is believed to have targeted a bridge leading to a military post. It failed to achieve its objective.
People said the market was also struck by an air attack, killing a pregnant woman.
“We will not be intimidated by the air bombings,” said John Maker, 26, who runs a shop in Bentiu selling batteries. “South Sudan has become independent. We won’t budge an inch from our land.”
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is still taking a hardline approach, calling the South Sudanese government an “insect,” and announcing plans to eliminate it completely.
During the recent fighting, nearly 50 wounded soldiers were being taken to the military hospital in Bentiu a day. With beds in short supply, the wounded were even placed outside. Countless flies were swarming around a soldier who sustained burns over many parts of his body.
John Okeny, a 35-year-old soldier who was treated at the hospital after suffering gunshot wounds to his arm, stressed the gap in military power.
“The Sudanese military staged fierce attacks with bombings from Russian-made fighter jets and machine gun fire from helicopters,” he said. “And they have many more troops.”
“I want to go back the fight soon after my eyes are cured,” said Martin Amusa, 26, who is in danger of losing his sight from injuries sustained in a bombing.
In regards to Sudan, which has a large population of Muslim Arabs, “We will not allow South Sudan (with many Christians) to become a colony of the Arab nation,” Amusa said. “We will drive them out from our country.”
Zakaria Deng, a doctor for the South Sudanese military, said countless bodies were left on the front lines.
“I don’t know how many people died in the battle areas,” he said. “This is not a small regional conflict, but war.”
Far to the south, a U.N. peacekeeping contingent of Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force personnel has not been involved in the conflict. They are in Juba, the South Sudanese capital, about 500 kilometers from the border region.
“The unit has been continuing its mission as planned because effects (from the battle) are not seen in Juba,” said Col. Toru Namatame, head of the liaison office in the capital. “We are carefully observing the situation.”
The combined oil production of the two Sudans ranks sixth in the African continent. About 80 percent of the wells are said to be in the southern part of the former Sudan, and those are concentrated in the border region. South Sudan does not own its pipelines, so it has been exporting its oil through Sudan.
The South, however, denounced the Sudanese government as a “thief,” saying it demanded outrageous shipping rates, and halted oil production in January. Juba has unveiled a plan to build a pipeline through Kenya.
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