JUBA (AFP) – South Sudan’s warring sides may have signed a ceasefire, but David Choul is not ready to leave the UN peacekeepers’ base, to which he had fled when gunmen rampaged through his neighbourhood during the brutal conflict.
“I’m not leaving until I know I’ll be safe outside, and I don’t know when that will be,” said Choul, who is one of 17,000 people who have squeezed into the former sports ground for safety.
Like him, other South Sudanese traumatised by the killings and other atrocities since fighting broke out on December 15 are waiting to see if the peace would indeed hold as pledged by political leaders.
“This morning… people have been busy queuing for the latrines, or to get clean water, or waiting for a cup of tea… no one I know is preparing to leave yet, they want to wait to see how things turn out,” Choul said.
As news broke of Thursday’s ceasefire deal, “everyone crowded around those with a radio, and while there was relief at the news, but it was not celebration,” the 23-year-old student recounted.
“It is a good step, but how can you celebrate when you we are still too frightened to leave the camp?” he said, speaking by crackling telephone from inside the UN base. “We are still so worried.”
The fighting that has seized the country for over a month has seen waves of brutal revenge attacks, as fighters and ethnic militia took the opportunity to loot and settle old scores.
Both the United Nations and rights workers have reported horrific atrocities committed by both sides.
The agreement, signed late Thursday in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa by representatives of President Salva Kiir and rebel delegates loyal to ousted vice president Riek Machar, was greeted by cheers from regional peace brokers and diplomats.
In the camps where South Sudanese are still hiding, the reaction was more muted.
Over 67,000 people are sheltering inside UN bases across South Sudan, fearing they will be killed if they leave, while more than half a million people have been forced from their homes.
Aid workers and analysts believe up to 10,000 people have died.
No quick resolution
On the dusty streets of Juba — where daily life in many districts appears largely to be returning to normal — residents were also cautiously optimistic about the agreement.
“This (the ceasefire) is what we want and what we have been praying for,” said Mary Konga, a 43-year old lady selling vegetables in Juba’s Munuki district. “We still pray that total peace comes to our country, we are tired of suffering.”
Others were more sceptical, saying they would wait to see if it was implemented.
“We want peace, but we want to see also the implementation of it as agreed by the two parties,” said Wani Edward, a builder.
In the impoverished settlement of Minkammen, some 200 kilometres (130 miles) north of Juba, teacher Simon Thon said that the news had been received with relief.
Minkammen, a once-tiny riverbank settlement of a few thatch huts, has swollen by some 80,000 people, who fled from fighting in the key town of Bor, risking their lives to make the dangerous crossing across the White Nile river to escape rebel attacks.
“It is good news, but people are still waiting for what it really means,” said Simon Thon, who fled after rebels stormed Bor, shooting those residents who ran and using machetes or spears on those they caught.
“We need it to really end the fighting, and for that we must pray that everyone obeys,” he added, speaking by telephone.
Thon fled with his family including his heavily pregnant wife, who has since given birth to a son, born beneath a tree in the camp.
“Things are calm here, but people are still very, very frightened,” he added. “There is no way people can just go back home and forget what happened.”