AFP – All that remains of Bor, a small market town that has changed hands four times in the latest South Sudan conflict, is an overwhelming smell of putrefying bodies and scattered trash that successive waves of looters ignored.
Warped sheets of rusting corrugated iron roofing, apparently the remains of market stalls, lie in tangled heaps.
Scattered across the street are the objects the looters did not want – ragged bits of clothing, cardboard boxes, single plastic slippers.
The ruins of the town, in which hundreds of civilians were killed, in some cases shot in the back as they fled, are eerily silent.
“My son was killed when the enemies came attacking people. My brother ran with his family and my son was also trying to run but as he was running to hide he was shot in the back,” recounted Majuer Garang, a tall, stoic man, under a tree on the outskirts of Bor where the dead remain where they fell, on narrow paths, or curled up under beds in their homes.
Towards the town centre a barefoot woman scurries across the main street, a table on her head.
Residents have started trickling slowly back into town for a few hours just to see if they can salvage any belongings the looters left behind.
Some of the bodies have been piled into shallow graves. Others still litter the streets, the white plastic sheeting – now covered with a thick layer of yellow dust – that covers some of them shields them from view but fails to disguise the fetid smell after days or weeks in the baking heat. Pedestrians hurrying past hold their breath.
The mayor of Bor, Nhial Majak Nhial is angry. He says his priority is to see the rebels who raped and massacred in cold blood women, children and those too old to flee held accountable.
“My biggest problem isn’t to reconstruct the town, or clean the town, it’s to make sure that…people must be held accountable,” he told AFP.
It would be premature for residents to resettle the town right now, he said.
Tens of thousands fled Bor and its surrounding villages, preferring to take their chances against crocodiles in the White Nile and sniper fire from its banks — anything to get out of town. Hundreds drowned in the attempt. Those who made it are now camping under trees in Awerial county on the other side of the river, where some have received help from aid agencies.
Those who did not flee are for the most part dead.
“We wait for the security situation to improve before we call the population to come back. For now they’re better off in Awerial county than being here,” Nhial said, noting that Bor town lacked even the most basic necessities such as food and mattresses.
Across town stands St Andrews Episcopal Church where some 40 people were massacred. A side building has partially collapsed after being set on fire.
The sole survivor, Deborah Agot Deng, an old blind woman, lives just metres from the church.
“I’m blind, but I was hearing a lot of guns, and around me people were screaming, crying, being shot. They were all around me on the floor, so I knew what was going on. I think God saved me,” she told AFP.
“I can’t even feel my body. Only now am I regaining feeling, feeling alive again. But when I hear guns I want to hide,” she recounted. She had to hide for three weeks in the church compound, until the town changed hands again, for fear the rebels would come back and finish her off.
Along the roads outside the town, where the odd military pickup bounces past, raising a storm of dust, similar atrocities have taken place.
Robert Majier Manyang points to the body of his 96-year-old grandmother, felled by a rebel bullet as she lay under the mosquito netting in her thatch-roof hut. Her attackers took her cattle with them and torched the fence.
Her wheelchair stands untouched in the sun.