- - Wednesday, January 20, 2016

KAKUMA, Kenya — At the sprawling Kakuma Refugee camp here in a remote corner of northern Kenya, Jael Aluel uses an old South Sudanese folk remedy — chewing herbs — to distract herself from hunger pangs.

She waits for food. She waits to resume her life. She hoped that something would change after a peace deal was signed last week to end the civil war in her native South Sudan. But that agreement is already threatening to fall apart, just like all the previous attempts at reconciliation in the bloody two-year civil war.

So she waits for peace.

“I came here with my kids to escape the civil war and to look for food,” mumbled Ms. Aluel, a widow who bore six children and now looks frail and sickly. “But I am willing to go back when peace prevails and build my own country.”

The power-sharing agreement signed last week was supposed to be the culmination of peace accords reached in August to end the fighting between South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, and his rival, former Vice President Riek Machar, of the rival Nuer tribe. The fighting has killed tens of thousands and displaced more than 2 million Sudanese, according to the United Nations. But on Sunday Mr. Machar accused Mr. Kiir of delay tactics and called back his negotiating team.

That is not good news for those such as Ms. Aluel.

The widow arrived in Kakuma two years ago after she fled to Kenya with three of her surviving children, all six or younger. Her husband and three other children were killed in fighting in Bor, the provincial capital of Jonglei State, an eastern province in South Sudan where the violence has been most intense.

“I was also raped by rebel soldiers and my house burned,” she said. “I would rather risk starving than endure violence that killed my family [again].”

Across the border between South Sudan and Kenya, a swarm of vultures hovers in the sky and a sickening smell fills the air. Slain bodies decaying can be seen on the South Sudan side of the border.

“Some of those people killed you see are women and children,” Ms. Aluel said. “They died while trying to cross the border to Kenya. Most of them were weak and hungry. They couldn’t survive long enough to reach here.”

The existing Kakuma facility, which opened in 1992, is itself a kind of mini-U.N., home to refugees of 18 nationalities. About 80,000 of the 185,000 camp residents are South Sudanese. Somalis account for 30 percent. Significant numbers of refugees have also come from Ethiopia, Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The overloaded camp was designed to hold 125,000 people and is straining at the seams to service the desperate refugees who flock here.

“We do suffer because of hunger,” said Stephen Pech Gai, a South Sudanese citizen who lives in Kakuma refugee camp. “We are not able to learn as well as we were in our country. Most students who were supposed to join high school have dropped out because of many various challenges we are facing in camp.”

Deadly power struggle

Violence has plagued South Sudan since it declared independence in a referendum from Sudan in 2011. First the country fought Sudan over disputed territory containing valuable oil deposits. Then the power struggle between Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar descended into civil war.

Under the peace deal, the two longtime rivals would share power, with members of the armed opposition sitting in parliament and Mr. Machar controlling a third of government ministries. Voters would then replace the so-called unity government in elections in three years.

But Mr. Machar on Sunday withdrew his negotiators from the peace talks, saying Mr. Kiir had refused to abolish the 28 states he unilaterally created late last year in South Sudan in violation of the power-sharing agreement, which calls for only 10 states. Mr. Kiir also appointed the governors who control the new states.

As the refugees wait, the future of the peace accord is now in jeopardy.

“We hope the parties will comply with the agreement in order that peace can be brought about,” said Festus Mogae, chairman of the African Union’s Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission.

Kakuma residents sang and danced after the peace accords were announced. That joy might have been premature, but now they have little choice but to hope for the best.

“We have hope in our country,” said Joyce Aker, a mother of three living in grim conditions in one of the makeshift zones of the camp where latrines are overflowing with human waste, increasing the risk of an outbreak of deadly diseases such as cholera. “Home is a better place than a foreign land. I believe we can forgive each other, including those who killed our relatives, and move on.”

Nonetheless, memories of murderous sprees by both government and rebels forces in her hometown continue to haunt her.

“It has been a life with difficulties,” she said. “My siblings were all murdered by government soldiers because they were an ethnic Nuer. People were being killed along ethnic lines. And for us women, rape was something common.”

Ms. Aker told of unimaginable horrors.

“Sometimes [the soldiers] could kill you while you are raped,” she said. “If they realize you are an ethnic Nuer, soldiers would rape you, then insert a bottle of beer in your private parts to kill you. They were very brutal.”

In the South Sudanese capital of Juba, the streets are quiet. Government soldiers stand guard at government offices and patrol through city streets. Hungry and tired young men quietly gather at the crowded U.N. displaced-persons centers and comb the city’s rubble.

“I lost one of my in-laws due to hunger,” recalls Monica Adum Majok, a mother of three. “I also remember one of my relatives had to use urine for drinking because we walked for [six miles] without water and there was no hope of getting water.

“It was a difficult journey — I could see people starving without food and clean water,” she added. “We used to take dirty water in the ponds for drinking because there was no alternative for us just to survive.”

Napar Deng, who came to Juba last year when the fighting broke out in the northern city of Malakal, said she was happy that Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar at least were close to a deal, though it has proven elusive. But even if the agreement proves sustainable, she still faces hard times.

“The rebel soldiers targeted Dinka people because they believed we supported the president,” she said. “They killed men and raped women, but I was able to escape and came here.

“My home was burned down — I came here with nothing,” she added. “I’m happy with the peace deal because I want to go back home. But the government should compensate us. We have nowhere to go even after the peace deal.”

Tonny Onyulo reported from Kenya. Jok Mayom contributed from South Sudan.

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