Malakal: The city that vanished in South Sudan

Malakal childrens hospital
Image caption Malakal has changed hands 12 times during the recent civil war

The roads of central Juba, the capital of South Sudan, bear witness to the British colonial town it once was: They are lined with neem trees, tall and narrow-leafed, their seeds transported from India.

In their broad shade, there is another familiar sight: Lines of men, in plastic chairs, most of them jobless. They wait and talk, scouring the thin pickings of the local newspapers.

Victor Lajar is one of them. He is 51 - his purple-striped shirt is perfectly pressed; his grey trousers have crisp vertical creases.

Over a cup of clove-laced tea, he tells me he used to be a local government official.

He was from the northern city of Malakal. He fled, during the civil war. He has a family to support and no job.

I ask my first guileless question: "The war's over; why don't you return?"

Mr Lajar answers with his own question: "You don't know about Malakal?" he asks. "It's ashes," he tells me.

Camp life

Few journalists go to Malakal. There are horrors aplenty elsewhere, and for long periods, the airport at the town has been inaccessible because of the fighting.

Image caption Many children who fled Malakal are now living in a nearby camp

I arrive, on a tiny United Nations charter, at Malakal airfield. We swiftly have company.

A queue of large Russian-made transport planes, with no tail markings, land: Three in one hour, to re-supply the government forces, the SPLA, who currently hold the city.

Before I head to Malakal itself, though, I visit the UN camp, just to the north-east. It is where 45,000 former residents of the city now live.

I am lucky - the rainy season is almost over. All I have to contend with is the broiling sun and the clouds of mosquitoes.

When it is wet, the ground is awash with mud and human waste.

The place carries the marks of the refugee camp. The new arrivals, strung out, hollow-eyed at its entrance.

The tents and shacks for long-term residents crammed into a crazed puzzle; the attempts to winnow a bit of extra cash: Men selling heaps of rusty nails; children selling single cloves of garlic; women selling small piles of clothes.

And there are the stories from their time in Malakal town: Of mothers and brothers shot, their bodies left to rot; of children lost in the chaos of fleeing.

So many stories, so much trauma, that by the end of my first afternoon, I have to check my notebook to pick out Nyabed's misery from Teresa's from Mary's from Nyangit's.

Looting and vandalism

In the morning, I get a rare tour of the city, in a UN military patrol, with an SPLA escort. It is unlike any place I have ever visited.

Malakal is - was - South Sudan's second city. In the decades of war with the north, it thrived. Now it is empty.

Image caption This is the main street through Malakal, which used to a be a bustling city

Parts have been razed to the ground in the rage of warfare.

But much has been wrecked simply by looting and vandalism, as rival forces allied to rival ethnic groups swept back and forth.

Malakal has changed hands 12 times during this civil war.

The children's hospital was built as a prize of independence. Now it is a shell, scorched, roofless, slowly strangled by the returning bush.

But I could see no bullet holes, no splashes of shrapnel. It, like the Red Cross headquarters, had been wrecked and pillaged by fighters not battling for a front line, but drunk on ownership.

Image caption The interior of the children's hospital has been looted and gutted
Image caption The offices of non-governmental organisations, like the Red Cross, have also been destroyed

Inside the Red Cross offices, amid the dust and destruction and fug of faeces, I find a discarded notebook.

"Rules for the Red Cross", a neat hand has written. Avoid "real or perceived breaches of neutrality and impartiality for multiple reasons, including ethnicity".

I have seen places wrecked by war, but never a city vanish like this.

Back at the UN camp, plans are quietly under way to be ready to deal with another 40,000 people who may yet cross over the White Nile to seek sanctuary and food.

South Sudan's elusive peace:

  • At least seven ceasefires agreed and broken since conflict started in December 2013
  • Nearly one in five South Sudanese displaced by the current conflict, from a total population of 12 million
  • Former rebel leader Salva Kiir became president of South Sudan, the world's newest state, when it gained independence in 2011
  • South Sudan has been at war for 42 of past 60 years

Five obstacles to peace in South Sudan

And I ask my second guileless question. It is addressed to one of the UN workers - he is a local, from Malakal.

Is he going to watch the football that afternoon on TV? South Sudan is playing its first World Cup qualification match.

"How can I cheer for this country?" he asks.

"We were so happy at independence. I remember the moment. My father - he'd been an agricultural scientist, who'd joined the struggle, and been killed in the struggle.

"But what was it for? Now, I only feel shame. We are so much worse off now."

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