LONGUTE, South Sudan (USA TODAY) — In this village near the Ugandan border, vultures constantly hover in the sky
and dogs prowl the streets. A repugnant, choking smell fills the air. Human remains lie unburied.
Much of the village is a killing field that underscores the brutality of a 4-year-old civil war tearing apart the world’s newest nation.
“My husband’s dead body is still uncollected since he was killed a month ago,” said Alek Kuur, 40, who has since sought refuge with her four daughters in a Catholic church in the nearby town of Torit. “We were attacked in the middle of the night. The soldiers were claiming that we are rebels. They shot and killed my husband and son.”
Kuur was talking about an April attack when South Sudanese soldiers allegedly pulled hundreds of people from their homes in the middle of the night, accusing them of harboring rebel forces and killing members of the Dinka tribe.
But Kuur believes being a member of the Nuer tribe was her and her village's real offense to the government soldiers.
Hopes of a resolution to South Sudan’s civil war were high in the past year or two. Instead, the violence has escalated to the point that the Vatican announced in late May that Pope Francis was canceling a visit to the country this year. In the north, fields strewn with bodies are increasingly common — so no one bothers to recover them from the dust on the unpaved roads, local residents say.
“They killed several people from our tribe during the attack,” Kuur recalled, as her eyes filled with tears. “They targeted men and male children. If you go to the villages right now, you will see bodies all over the place. The bodies are decomposing and no one bothers.”
South Sudan's civil war is a political and ethnic conflict. President Salva Kiir is a member of the majority Dinkas, while rebel commander and former vice president Riek Machar is a Nuer, the second-largest ethnic group in the country. Tensions between the two men date back to South Sudan’s independence in 2011, but the civil war began two years later when Kiir fired Machar, claiming his No. 2 was trying to undermine him.
Tens of thousands of people have since been killed. More than 3 million have been displaced, and the possible famine is threatening millions more.
“We received hundreds of displaced people during the attack,” said Jakino Lomogo, the priest at the Church of St. Peter and Paul that now hosts Kuur and her family. “There were sounds of gunshots all over and people were running here and there.”
Children as young as 7 who didn’t escape the government troops were forced to fight with them to replenish the regime’s diminishing ranks of fighters, Lomogo and others said. Many of those children show distended bellies, indicating malnutrition.
Teng, 10, a child government soldier who doesn't know his last name, said forces on either side regularly storm schools, homes and gatherings to recruit children at gunpoint.
“They sometimes kill your parents to ensure that you never think about them during the training,” Teng said, looking around to make sure other government soldiers don’t hear. “Every male child here is a soldier on his own supporting either the government or rebels. It’s not our desire to be soldiers, but we are forced to so that we can protect ourselves.”
South Sudan’s government recruited 1,300 children to fight last year, according to the United Nations. That brought the total number of children fighting in the conflict to more than 17,000 since 2013.
“Children are once again being targeted for child recruitment as the fighting intensifies," said UNICEF’s regional director for Eastern and Southern Africa, Leila Gharagozloo-Pakkala. “Since the first day of this conflict, children have been the ones most devastatingly affected by the violations.”
The bodies left in the fields and the continued use of child soldiers illustrates how the civil war has worsened despite a peace agreement signed in August 2015.
The country's dismal economy suggests the situation won’t change. Drilling revenues are down as oil prices dropped. Drought makes the threat of famine one of the worst looming humanitarian disasters on the globe. And the country’s infrastructure is crumbling — only 2% of South Sudan’s roads are paved, according to the African Development Bank.
“Life is very horrible in South Sudan,” said Mayol Garang, a teacher at a government school in Juba. “The prices of basic commodities have gone up and there is no money to purchase them. We are not even getting salaries. There is no money at all.”
South Sudanese lawmaker Goc Makuac, an ally of Kiir, blamed the rebels for the economy’s troubles.
“The only way to stabilize this country is to stop the war across the country,” he said. “We should also increase our production and not only depend on oil or import items.”
The economy is not on Kuur’s mind, however. The memory of her husband still haunts her. She also has a fresh scar on her face, a stark reminder of the recent conflict.
“Kiir and Machar should remember the people of this country — we are suffering. We are losing our children and husbands." she said. "They should know that God will never forgive them.”