WAU, SOUTH SUDAN —
Almash Desai has just lived through a nightmare.
After working for four years in a tea shop in the South Sudanese town of Bentiu, the capital of Unity state, the Ethiopian national fled for her life several days ago when armed men came to her home.
"They came at night and we were sleeping," she told VOA News in Wau, the capital of Western Bahr el Ghazal state, where she arrived Friday morning after a journey of hundreds of kilometers from Malakal.
"I was wearing trousers and they told me to remove them, and I did. I was left with my underwear only. Two of us managed to escape. We ran naked like this and we ran behind our shop. They were searching everywhere. They brought a truck and took everything. Our friends were raped by seven or eight people but I managed to escape. They did not get me," she said.
Desai knows she is lucky to have escaped with her life. She said she heard of many women and girls in Bentiu who have been raped and killed. Some of them were her friends.
Our friends were raped by seven or eight people but I managed to escape. They did not get me.
Bentiu has been the scene of fierce battles between government and opposition forces since South Sudan plunged into violence on Dec. 15.
The provincial capital was seized by anti-government forces in late December but was recaptured early this month by government troops.
The United Nations Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights, Ivan Šimonović, who visited Bentiu this week as part of a trip to South Sudan to investigate reports of rights abuses by both sides in the conflict, told reporters in Juba on Friday that Bentiu has been wiped off the map.
The town "simply did not even exist any more," said Šimonović.
"It was completely burnt down. There were just a couple of buildings including a hospital that were still standing," he said of what was once the capital of South Sudan's second largest oil-producing state.
Ali Ismael Osmaan spent three weeks at U.N. Mission in South Sudan's (UNMISS) compound in Bentiu after the shop he ran there for six years was broken into and looted. In the end, the Sudanese national also fled to Wau, which has so far been unaffected by the fighting in South Sudan.
Bentiu simply did not exist any more. It was completely burnt down.
"All the shops are destroyed and all the goods have been looted," Ali said, blaming both soldiers and civilians for the widespread looting.
"We have some brothers and sisters who have been killed, and others who had money and mobile phones taken from them. Even those who managed to get to U.N. compounds, some were killed and some were threatened. We really lost everything," he said.
Huda Fadul, a mother of five children from northern Darfur in Sudan, arrived in Wau on Friday morning.
"We don’t have anything left. We just came with the clothes on our backs. We were in Rubkona county," in Unity state, she said.
"I have seen many people killed... We thank God we have arrived in Wau safely," she said, adding that she wants to make her way back to Darfur to be with her family.
Half a million displaced by fighting
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)
said Friday nearly half a million people are estimated to have been displaced by the fighting in South Sudan. More than 118,000 have left Unity state and 113,500 have fled Jonglei state, where government and opposition forces are battling for control of the capital, Bor.
Aid organizations have only reached 200,000 of the internally displaced people so far, OCHA said.
Around 1,000 people are leaving South Sudan every day to seek refuge in neighboring countries, the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, said Friday, projecting that refugee numbers will top 100,000 by the end of January if the fighting does not stop and the exodus continues.