Southern Sudan is edging closer to its planned independence from the northern part of the country on July 9. Still, many communities are still living in fear, and there is a risk of escalating violence.
Charles, 13, was abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army and beaten
The town of Abyei, on the border between the north and south, was seized in late May by northern forces following clashes with Southern Sudanese troops that killed at least 22 soldiers. Khartoum announced a set of five proposals to put an end to the crisis in Abyei on Tuesday, but it remain unclear if the scheme will be accepted by Southern Sudan.
Patrols by the United Nations mission in Sudan have confirmed that many villages south of Abyei town suffered "heavy destruction" in the fighting, the UN's humanitarian office said in a statement Tuesday.
The UN estimated some 60,000 people have fled their homes in recent weeks and the disputed status of Abyei is now threatening a peaceful transition to independence. After voting for independence in a January referendum, Southern Sudan is scheduled to secede on July 9.
But Abyei is not the only part of Sudan where tensions are running high. Further south, security also remains fragile in border regions where the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) is active.
The LRA is a northern Ugandan militia led by Joseph Kony and roams the borders of Uganda, Southern Sudan, Central African Republic, and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). For more than 20 years the LRA have terrorized communities - looting, killing, raping, abducting women for "bush wives" and forcing children to become soldiers.
Kony and several senior LRA leaders face arrest warrants from the International Criminal Court (ICC). Snce 2008, the LRA has killed over 2,400 civilians, abducted 3,400 people including many children, and displaced over 400,000 people from their homes, according to Human Rights Watch.
Tied up and beaten
Thirteen-year-old Charles lowers a large bucket into a shallow hole and scoops up brown, brackish water to bring back home for washing. It's a daily chore to help his family whose village is very close to the dense forest along Southern Sudan's border with DRC.
Two decades of fighting has torn apart civilian life in Sudan
On an ordinary day in January last year, Charles was abducted with five others by the Lord's Resistance Army while tending to his family's crops.
"They tied me up with a rope and they beat me," Charles said. "When I tried to escape they cut me on the back with a machete."
Charles said the LRA soldiers who captured him were moving quickly and released the women as they marched through the bush. Eventually, he managed to escape with another boy who he said had been held by the LRA for more than three years.
"I was very happy to see my mother," Charles said. "When my mother saw me she ran up to me and hugged me. I praised God that he had protected me."
Charles was first brought to a transit center for abducted children in Yambio, the administrative capital of the South Sudanese state of Western Equatoria. The center provides the children with medical care and specialized counseling, and begins tracing their family.
The children abducted by the LRA are often traumatized by beatings, sexual abuse or having been forced by the LRA to kill family members.
"They kill an immediate relation like a father or a brother or mother to make them fear from escaping," said Justin Ebere who runs the transit center. "[The LRA] seal them off from their community, from returning back to their community."
And even though some may not be given firearms, Ebere emphasized that the LRA conditions children to kill.
"They orientate them towards serious violence, murder and all the skills of killing," he said. "Their life in the bush depends on the skills you have to kill."
Abducted at gunpoint
In a village just a short distance from Yambio, 12-year-old Grace is helping her mother wash dishes. Their small and simple mud hut sits beside a large mango tree. For Grace, every day with her family is cherished but she still lives in fear. In 2009 she and several others in her village were abducted at gun point by the LRA. As they were marched through the bush, the LRA killed the adult men.
Twelve-year-old Grace was abducted from her village by the LRA and forced to work
"We continued walking and we heard gunshots. They said if we try to escape we would be killed," said Grace.
Grace was held in captivity by the LRA for nearly a year. She was forced to carry heavy loads, and suffered beatings and abuse. She was shot in the leg when Ugandan soldiers attacked an LRA campsite. Unable to run away, Grace was rescued by Ugandan soldiers and eventually reunited with her family. Although her gunshot wound has healed, her mother Esther is worried that Grace is still deeply troubled by the experience.
"She is very moody. Sometimes she is silent and doesn't want to cooperate. She just gets so angry as if someone has annoyed her. And when she gets in that mood she doesn't want anyone to ask her what happened with the LRA."
The ongoing threat of attacks by the LRA in this part of Southern Sudan continues to displace tens of thousands of people. Villagers from Sangua near Nzara said they're unable to go back to their homes or work their crops and rely on support from international NGO's in a makeshift camp. They also talk of the terrifying LRA attack on their village.
One woman recalled that the LRA attacked them in the morning. She managed to grab her youngest child but had to leave behind another toddler. Although she did not witness it, she believes her child was killed along with other babies in village - pounded to death in a large wooden mortar for grinding grain.
The Arrow Boys are a small, poorly equipped home militia
The Congolese army and Uganda People's Defense Force have pursed Joseph Kony and the LRA across borders in the region. However, Human Rights Watch said they lack adequate capacity to react quickly. The United States also committed to help protect civilians threatened by the LRA in the region, but human rights groups are urging the US as well as the United Nations to do more.
Except for a home militia known as the Arrow Boys, remote communities are largely defenseless. There are some 3,000 Arrow Boys in Western Equatoria - armed only with bows and arrows, spears and an assortment of homemade shotguns. From their patrols they provide intelligence to the South Sudanese government on LRA movements.
Against a more heavily armed LRA they rely on their local bush knowledge. One of the Arrow Boy leaders, Gemenze William John, said his men are not afraid of fighting the LRA.
"So the LRA have machine guns and when we meet them we can do our best as Arrow Boys," he said. "With my arrows I can do it because I'm fighting for my land."
With the status of Abyei under dispute, sporadic internal fighting in other regions, as well as the continual threat of posed by the LRA, South Sudan is likely to have a difficult birth on July 9. The people of the world's newest nation have already endured decades of conflict and violence. Despite the South Sudanese struggle for independence, peace and security remains far from certain.
Author: Guy Degen
Editor: Sean Sinico