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MALAKAL, South Sudan — A crowd of people rushed onto the dirt embankment and glared at the masses gathered on the opposite side of the road. The men, women, and children, all members of the Shilluk ethnicity, held machetes and makeshift weapons like rusty spears and crude wooden batons wrapped with barbed wire.
With a laugh, a Shilluk boy scraped the blades of two machetes against each other above his head, taunting the people he faced, ethnic Dinka.
“If you reach us here, just wait and see!” yelled a Shilluk woman nearby.
This tense standoff was not on the battlefield, but inside a United Nations compound, where tens of thousands of South Sudanese civilians have sought refuge. Many fled ethnic reprisals, only to have the highly politicized and ethnic divisions that have ripped their country apart play out inside the protection-of-civilians camp as well.
“We know the problem started outside, but now it came inside,” said William John Deng, a Shilluk elder and a resident of the camp.
The crisis in South Sudan that began in December 2013 was largely political. But the sudden onset of violence and mass mobilization along tribal lines quickly fed a spiral of retaliation and mistrust among some of South Sudan’s ethnicities.
That month, fighting erupted across South Sudan between soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir, from the Dinka tribe, and troops led by his former Vice President Riek Machar, from the Nuer.
Since then, more than 2.1 million people have been displaced, including nearly 592,800 to neighboring countries, according to United Nations figures. At least 142,000 people are seeking shelter in bases operated by the U.N. peacekeeping force, known by the acronym UNMISS.
Malakal, the capital of oil-rich Upper Nile state, is now barren of civilians, its once bustling markets and government buildings gutted by repeated attacks by rebel and government forces.
More than 30,000 civilians from the city and surrounding area fled to a United Nations camp a mile from the town center.
Until recently, Gen. Johnson Olony, a leader of Shilluk forces in this part of South Sudan, fought with the SPLA, the country’s army under Kiir. Then in April, Olony defected.
The change not only was a turning point on the battlefield but also had an immediate impact on the population behind the U.N. camp’s guarded walls.
“The conflict dynamics outside ripple across the protection-of-civilian sites,” said Hastings Amurani-Phiri, the acting UNMISS coordinator in Malakal. “This impacts the whole ability to co-exist.”
Whereas they once co-existed peacefully, the displaced Dinka and Shilluk quickly fell into mistrust of each other. Aid workers working in the camp say that when people lose a family member on the battlefield, they often take revenge in the camp.
“They have no power to fight in the conflict. They cannot go outside to fight. But they can retaliate inside,” said an aid worker who worked in the camp and wished to remain anonymous because he was not permitted to speak publicly on the situation.
After days of riots, with clashes in which at least one woman was killed in a tent fire, thousands of Dinka abandoned their shelters and fled to field in the U.N. compound where aid groups planned to put a new section of the camp.
The move effectively divided the camp into three zones, with the camp’s Shilluk, Dinka and Nuer living apart.
“I cannot go to the other side. I would be killed immediately,” said Emmanuel Mayor, a Dinka youth who lives in the new section. He walked with a limp, and on his leg was a bandage over an injury he said was from a clash with Shilluk youths.
The violence can also strike the camp from outside, causing loss of life and injury and aggravating mistrust.
In the past two months, a number of residents of protection-of-civilians camps in the Malakal region were killed in attacks by armed groups, according to United Nations officials, demonstrating the limits of peacekeepers’ ability to maintain security.
On Wednesday soldiers loyal to Olony fired at the new Dinka section, killing one person and injuring nine others, before being pushed back by UNMISS peacekeepers. In a statement, UNMISS said such attacks would “compromise the mission’s ability to implement its mandate if they continue to go unpunished.”
Hostility among displaced populations is not unique to the U.N. camp in Malakal. But Joseph Contreras, the acting spokesman for UNMISS, said the tensions that surface in other sites generally arise from political affiliation rather than ethnic divisions.
“The internally displaced persons [IDPs] inside UNMISS protection-of-civilians sites in Malakal are by far the most ethnically heterogeneous IDP population under the mission’s protection,” he said.
Bentiu, in neighboring Unity state, is home to the largest protection-of-civilians camp. More than 74,000 displaced people have sought refuge at the U.N.’s compound there.
Though most of that camp’s residents are from the Nuer tribe, tensions between a subgroup that supports or is perceived to support the president and other subgroups that are aligned with the opposition have led to deadly clashes in the camp.
Camp managers in Malakal say they tried to avoid separating people by tribe. Residents asked to self-segregate, for fear that U.N. peacekeeping troops wouldn't be able to protect them.
“No one wants to see a segregated [camp], but at the same time, especially from a protection perspective, you are seeing so much violence back and forth,” said a U.N. official who asked to remain anonymous because she was not allowed to speak publicly on the matter. “And with the level of [peacekeeping] forces we have, the capacity isn’t there.”
With tensions escalating, United Nations officials and aid groups are keen to use whatever tools available to tamp down hostility among camp residents.
When fighting erupted in April, Nile FM, a small radio station that operates in a tent in the camp and is run by the nongovernmental organization Internews, cleaned up its music collection to avoid airing any potentially divisive songs. It broadcast short interviews with elders, women’s groups and youths on peaceful coexistence.
“We call it greetings and peace message,” said Dau Nyok, the station manager.
UNMISS police stepped up their patrols and random searches to look for weapons hidden in shelters. They have formed a peace and security council, made up of community leaders from each ethnicity, to coordinate with residents about humanitarian needs and to inform camp managers when relations among ethnic groups get particularly strained.
But for some residents, these measures are not enough, and they have taken security into their own hands.
Shilluk youths established checkpoints and formed protection squads, organizing teams of men, armed with batons and homemade whips, to patrol their section of the camp.
According to two members of the group, they have 80 members who work on 12-hour shifts in the section and on its borders.
“We founded this group for two reasons — to control inside the site from thieves but also to guard the border between the Shilluk and the Dinka,” said Wieh Adwok, who said he manages the unit.
Officials in the camp say these groups are not sanctioned by the United Nations and their presence in the camp often exacerbates tensions among residents.
On June 27, Olony’s forces, backed by additional fighters from the opposition, claimed to have retaken Malakal yet again.
With fighting nearing the U.N. camp, aid workers and officials sheltered in crude, mosquito-infested bunkers made of shipping containers and sandbags, as the sound of gunbattles raged outside.
Multiple sources in the camp said they also heard another sound: Shilluk families, cheering the progress of Olony’s men.
“It’s very sad. These people have no way to go out because it is too dangerous,” said an aid worker who asked to remain anonymous because he was not permitted to speak publicly about the situation.
“But then they have it in here as well,” he said.
Benedict Moran is reporting from South Sudan on a grant from the International Reporting Project, an independent journalism program based in Washington, D.C.