'I heard the bullets when my family got killed'
Innocent victims of the South Sudan conflict tell their harrowing stories to Foreign Journalist of the Year Jason O'Brien at a humanitarian camp in Twic
'I JUST remember the noise of the bullets," she says, staring at the ground. Did it happen at your house? "Yes." Was your family there? "Yes." What happened to them? "I don't know... they got killed," she says quietly.
What happened to you? "I ran."
What will happen to you? "I don't know." She shrugs.
Like most 12-year-olds taking questions from a stranger in a foreign language, Arek Ayii Rou is painfully shy, verging on the monosyllabic, as she pulls repeatedly at her left elbow with her right hand while staring resolutely at the ground.
Unlike most 12-year-olds, Arek already has a story worth hearing. But asking her to tell it – to re-live the night from just seven weeks ago – seems another act of unnecessary cruelty.
Nonetheless, over the space of 20 minutes, we piece together the events of December 19 that have left her an orphan at the haphazard Managuei humanitarian camp in Twic in the north-west of South Sudan. It is at least a three-day walk from her former home in the capital of Unity State.
But she completed it, and did it carrying a toddler she found in the bush as hundreds led door-to-door violence on the outskirts of Bentiu.
Now that little boy is effectively in her care, and Arek's shyness abates momentarily as she pleads on his behalf for food. "I call him Akec," she says of the toddler who rests on her hip. The whereabouts or identity of his parents is unknown.
The exact cause of the descent into what is effectively civil war in South Sudan is similarly murky, and the prospects for the world's newest nation are as disheartening as Arek and Akec's.
Most lay the blame for the violence at the door of politicians, and a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar.
Kiir – who is from the Dinka ethnicity, the biggest group in the country – apparently feared a coup attempt by Machar, a member of the Neur ethnicity, the second biggest, after Machar was removed from office last year.
Fighting broke out on December 15, and appears to have taken on an ugly ethnic dimension very quickly even though both men had supporters from across the ethnic divides.
Kiir was soon being accused of mobilising his own private militias, and Neurs were largely the victims. Meanwhile, Machar – linked to a massacre of Dinkas two decades ago – is accused of organising a feared Nuer force called the 'White Army'.
There have been reports of what would effectively be ethnic cleansing by both sides, with a conservative estimate of 10,000 deaths, and just short of one million people – like Arek and Akec – forced to flee.
Among the horrific verified reports is the systematic rape and murder last month of hundreds of Neurs by government forces loyal to Kiir in the small town of Bor, some of whom were shot as they lay helpless in hospital beds.
The first month of fighting set the country back a decade, according to the UN.
This brutal conflict is being wreaked on a country and a people who have already suffered a five-decade war that claimed two million lives before finally winning independence from Sudan in July 2011.
But there is a glaring reason South Sudan is not considered a lost cause by its neighbours or the world's elite – 3.5 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, with many more anticipated.
Many believe that the conflict – currently the subject of a fledgling ceasefire – was always about control of oil.
Some neighbouring countries – not least Sudan through which all of landlocked South Sudan's oil flows to northern refineries and ports –have also become involved in the conflict to differing degrees, with Ugandan troops, for example, currently on the ground here.
It is debatable whether these countries are part of the potential solution or part of the current problem that has engulfed the country.
Bentiu, where Arek and Akec are from, is the capital of Unity State, one of the country's oil-rich regions, while Malakal – where 28,000 have crammed into a small United Nations base seeking sanctuary – is capital of another: the Upper Nile State. Both cities have changed hands a number of times in the past eight weeks.
In total, the UN now estimates that 3.7 million people in South Sudan – or a third of the population – are in acute need of food.
In a smaller humanitarian camp at Aweng, also in Warrap State, this fallout from the dispute is stark.
The people here are both Dinka and Neur.
It matters little: all of them are very hungry, some may be starving.
The last food drop by an aid agency was 15 days ago as the authorities don't want this to become an 'official' camp.
Many who could summon the energy have moved to Managuei camp. The rest wait.
"We are living with Dinka, and we are living in harmony as we did for many years with Dinka in this country," Cherilo Mawut (44), a Neur who fled Unity with his two children, says, suggesting there was nothing inevitable about the descent into civil war.
"But right now we have bigger problems." He begged for food for his daughters.
Intense hunger was one of the reasons put forward for a four-day looting spree in Malakal last week, during which 1,700 tonnes of food was stolen by thousands of people. That food should have helped feed 100,000 for a month.
The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs admits that, to date, aid agencies have only been able to help 300,000 affected by the crisis in South Sudan.
Meanwhile, Malakal is a wasteland, with hundreds of homes burned to the ground, markets torched and abandoned, and those few shops not hit by the various lootings now abandoned and shuttered.
Davy Adams, who is with the Irish NGO Goal, has arrived in the devastated city in the past few days from north-east Syria.
He is in the small UN base now home to approximately 28,000 people, and the veteran aid worker described it as a "terrible situation... shortage of food, water and medicine" with those inside "afraid to leave the camp".
It is all a far cry from the vision espoused by celebrities like George Clooney and Mia Farrow a couple of years back as they backed a referendum for South Sudan and its immediate secession from Sudan.
Its independence was trumpeted as a victory for Western advocacy – led by the United States and Europe – as well as for the South Sudanese people.
Now the UN is harbouring at least 80,000 of those same people at various bases around the country, with hundreds of thousands of others also afraid to return home because they believe they will be considered legitimate targets by their neighbours.
Many more no longer have a home. Nyawur Akok-bol knows her parents were shot dead in her former sitting room. She hid in her bedroom as "soldiers" came through, and somehow escaped after the house was set alight.
"There is nothing there for me now," she says flatly.
With little choices open to her, she has started a new life in Managuei camp. Arek is a new friend. She regularly looks after little Akec.
She is 13.
"He cries a lot," she says. Do you cry about what happened to your parents? "Yes."
All three orphans have now been taken under the wing of Mary Angok, a 43-year-old mother of three young boys.
"They are very welcome here, they stop me from thinking," she says of her 'adopted' family.
One of her biological sons was shot in the back last month as they fled the family home in Bentiu.
He was 13 also. He died.
Mary doesn't know where her nine-year-old and seven-year-old are.
"I hope they are in a UN camp," she says.
That's what now passes for hope around here, two-and-a-half years after the jubilation of independence.