GULU, UGANDA —
Five days of heavy fighting in South Sudan's capital, Juba, sent tens of thousands of people fleeing their homes. Some have tried to go south to Uganda, but that highway is considered incredibly dangerous. The few who have made it across the border tell of ambushes and checkpoints wracked by looting and violence.
In the Elegu refugee reception center near the border, a young South Sudanese woman bursts into tears when she's asked how she fled from Juba.
She says she lived in a suburb of Juba. Fighting started one evening and she says her neighbors took her from her house. Just a few minutes later, she says, her home was bombed and she lost two relatives. She hid in the northern outskirts of Juba before heading south and finding their way onto a bus.
At military checkpoints, she said men in government SPLA uniforms asked for money from each passenger. When they ran out of money, she says the soldiers took their belongings, including cellphones, laptops and even clothes.
This was also the case for Liberian national Edwin Taylor – who escaped with his brother.
“We are [foreigners]. We want to leave the country. They said no, we cannot leave. We need to pay money. We are in crisis, how can I get money to pay you? I came to Uganda side. They embraced me,” said Taylor.
Edwin Taylor and his brother Samson Carl Lewis are two Liberians who were working in South Sudan. They say on their journey south to Uganda they saw bodies and burnt out cars. (L. Paulat/VOA)
He said the road was very dangerous.
“If you get on the roadside, you will see bodies on the road which are foreigner bodies, cars on the road. People who were coming from the capital... They killed these people, took their cars, robbed them. It's not easy. It was by the grace of the God we maneuvered to come here,” said Taylor.
The normally bustling border post in Nimule has emptied of traffic. Police say they've kept Ugandan traders from entering South Sudan – as they say attempting to drive to Juba would be suicide.
One Ugandan woman, who grabbed a bus from Juba when the fighting first began, says government soldiers were keeping South Sudanese from leaving the country. She describes the checkpoints.
She says that when they passed through a road block, she saw signs of fresh violence. She learned that four people in the car ahead of her were shot. She says she saw one of the passengers who was shot in the leg. She says this happened at a SPLA checkpoint.
An SPLA spokesperson, Lul Ruai Koang, told VOA he is not aware of any new checkpoints or violence along the road going to Uganda.
It's mostly women and children at the refugee reception center in Elegu, many have come from just across the border, worried that violence will reach their homes. (L. Paulat/VOA)
Police on the Ugandan side said there's been a spike in people with gunshot wounds coming across the border since fighting resumed in Juba Thursday. Fighting calmed there late Monday after a ceasefire was declared.
The U.N. refugee agency has asked Uganda to prepare for an influx of refugees. Ugandan police say they will cater to all refugees but they say for now, tightened border control on the South Sudanese side has kept arrivals low.
And Uganda is making plans to keep the fighting off its territory. More than a dozen trucks packed with soldiers, including four Mamba armored vehicles, could be seen making their way to the border on Wednesday.
According to Ugandan army Lieutenant Ahmad Hassan Kato, there have been no skirmishes at the border and the army has no plans to enter South Sudan.