BENTIU, SOUTH SUDAN —
Six months ago, Bentiu was a ghost town. The capital of northern Unity State, near South Sudan’s important oil fields, had changed hands several times in fighting between government forces and rebels. Calm returned in November and since then, residents of Bentiu have been trying to regain some sense of normalcy. Bentiu’s market has reopened there are plans to start school again. But there fear of new attacks remains.
The small, propeller-driven airplane of the World Food Program leaves Juba, the capital of South Sudan, for the north. The rich and fertile country below could easily sustain itself. But a year ago, when fighting broke out, all development in the then two-year-old country stopped.
Bentiu has suffered greatly - the town is strategically located near some of South Sudan’s important oil fields. Often a frontline in the battle between the forces of President Salva Kiir and fighters loyal to his former deputy, Riek Machar, there is some recent calm.
So life is tentatively returning - with some residents moving back and plans to reopen a school for 150 children.
“So we started to open this school, so that we show that the peace has come, so that the stability has also come to the town,” said Zecharia Bot Tuor, the director for general education in Unity State.
A lot of work needs to be done before the opening. Tables and chairs are missing. The walls are tagged with messages from the most recent occupation.
And there is no guarantee that the calm will last. Peace talks are entering a second year without progress save multiple failed cease-fires.
The regional government here gave VOA permission to film. But streets are dominated by edgy soldiers who don’t like the camera.
Wal Yack Gatkuoth, the acting governor of Unity State, says he is expecting a new attack any minute.
“The last fighting in Bentiu town was on the 29th of October this year. And up to this time, after that attack of Bentiu town and Rubkona, there is no more fighting anymore. And our forces are still remained on the areas where they are. And the forces, of course forces of rebel are still around in the areas of course where they hold,” he said.
The conflict in South Sudan has killed thousands and displaced several million. The WFP is warning that 2.5 million people will face acute hunger next year. Meanwhile, people here try to get back to daily life, but planning for the future is as uncertain as the future of South Sudan itself.