After war, South Sudan refugees struggle in Ethiopia

PAGAK, Ethiopia (AFP) - With war raging in South Sudan and severe flooding in Ethiopia's western state of Gambela, 10-year old refugee Nyanhial Gatkuoth is caught in the middle.

For four months the little South Sudanese refugee has been living at Pagak, an Ethiopian town on the border with her war-torn home country.

"I miss going to school," she told Agence France-Presse. "In South Sudan, I was learning English."

Now she spends her free time playing with other children, using an inflated rubber glove as a football.

She and her mother are waiting to be relocated to a refugee camp, where they hope to find a school. Pagak is only a way-station, and refugees there are unhappy with their small rations and the large tents they must all cram into to sleep.

For now, there is no camp available for Nyanhial - or for the 13,000 other refugees the United Nations estimates are waiting. Surrounding camps are filled to capacity, or are swamped in fetid, mosquito-infested water.

The war in the world's newest nation erupted in December, when President Salva Kiir accused his sacked deputy Riek Machar of trying to stage a coup.

Thousands of people have been killed and almost two million have been forced from their homes, including almost 100,000 who are sheltering in squalid UN peacekeeping bases fearing they will be killed if they leave.

The violence has since broadened into an ethnic conflict, and now includes more than 20 different armed groups.

Long-running peace talks in Ethiopia are stalled, and hundreds more refugees cross each week into Ethiopia, which is now hosting almost 200,000 South Sudanese who have fled the war.

With fighting apparently escalating once again now the rainy season that made roads impassable has ended, fears are growing that the numbers fleeing will increase further.

Local UN refugee agency chief Angel Djohossou says all efforts are being made to find new sites for those waiting at border sites - and for the thousands more who may pour into the country.

But existing camps are already struggling.

One, Leitchuor camp, once hosted more than 47,000 refugees. But heavy rain flooded the site, forcing about one-third of the inmates to move to dry ground.

"Facilities like grinding mills, water points, latrines - refugees cannot access them because they are flooded," UNHCR worker Matthew Binyiri said, estimating that more than three-quarters of investment had been "washed away".

Mr John Wiyual, 41, is one of thousands stuck knee-deep in water at Leitchuor. He arrived at the camp in March with four children and wants to find a dry place to live, but cannot venture out too often because he is worried about his family. "I can't let the children run around without somebody around, there is so much water and they might fall in," he said. "I don't (know) where to go."

This week, each side accused the other of launching attacks, with rebels and government troops exchanging artillery barrages and heavy gunfire in Upper Nile state, which borders Ethiopia.

Mr Ateny Wek Ateny, spokesman in Mr Kiir's office, said the government delegation to peace talks had been recalled home until the rebel side turned up.

"The team is sitting idle in Addis Ababa doing practically nothing, while the chief negotiator of the other side is planning for war," Mr Ateny said, adding that they would return as soon as mediators called them.

Mr Kiir and rebel chief Machar met last month in Tanzania, shaking hands and accepting mutual responsibility for the war.

It was their first meeting since they signed a ceasefire in August, which, like three previous agreements, swiftly collapsed.

"The more they attack the more there is fighting," South Sudan army spokesman Philip Aguer said, blaming the rebels for the recent surge in violence.

Meanwhile, the refugees in Ethiopia say they will not return to South Sudan until the war is over. "We will stay here until we get peace in South Sudan," said Mr Wiyual, adding that all he had left was prayers. "I hope, God willing, there will be peace."

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