A handful of volunteers in almost deserted Bor, capital of South Sudan's Jonglei State, remove dead bodies from homes, put them in body bags donated by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and place them in mass graves. Since the emergence of an armed rebellion in mid-December, government troops have lost and won control of the town several times. On 23 February, the army said it had repelled further attempts to take Bor.
“Maybe 60 percent of Bor has been cleared,” said Jonglei's acting governor Aquilla Lam, returning from the burial of 134 people the same morning.
John Prendergast, director of the anti-genocide Enough Project, said he visited three other mass graves the week before IRIN's visit, where “hundreds of people have been buried…
“Every day, dozens of new corpses are discovered in abandoned homes. The body bags prepared by medical workers appear along the roads with relentless regularity.”
Some white body bags still lie along the main routes.
“Because most of the town has been abandoned, there is no way to know how many dead are still to be counted,” Prendergast added.
Hundreds are awaiting burial at a site where diggers from the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) are clearing more space in a field that used to serve as a cemetery for a few dozen people who died of diseases.
Crumpled sheets of metal and piles of litter are all that remain of the market in Bor; burnt huts - some said to contain the bodies of their owners - line pockmarked dirt roads.
Estimates for the numbers killed across South Sudan since mid-December vary widely: in January, the International Crisis Group suggested 10,000; some diplomats put the toll at ten times that figure.
Fleeing aid and church workers talk of devastation in towns such as Bentiu and Malakal in South Sudan's oil producing states of Unity and Upper Nile where rebels have massed and are still attacking.
Access to bodies difficult
Thousands are thought to have been killed in Bor and surrounding areas, but access to the bodies is almost impossible in five of Jonglei’s 11 counties where rebels are still operating.
“We have people going house to house to house looking [for bodies], but we don't have any vehicles,” said acting governor Lam.
He is reluctant to give a figure but thinks that “it's over 1,000 people” killed in Bor centre alone. He said that some of the Nuer White Army fighters that attacked Bor were as young as 10 or 12 and “armed only with spears”. Many were gunned down as government and Ugandan troops tried to protect the town.
Around 74,000 people - mostly from Bor and surrounding counties - fled to Minkamen in neighbouring Lakes State. Some escaped the gunmen by paying boatmen to whisk them to safety. Others simply plunged into the crocodile-infested Nile.
A mass grave has been dug by the UN at the St Andrew's Episcopal Church in Bor, where 22 people are buried, including 14 women who were shot dead, or dragged out, raped and had their throats slit.
Meanwhile, food is a major concern.
Standing by his shop that is now just a shell covered in a thin white dusting of flour - the only reminder of the 6,000 stolen bags - businessman Ayuen Guen is worried that people trickling back will have nothing to eat.
“There is no food items, there is nothing.” Guen would like to import more food from Uganda, but with banks destroyed and the government in war mode, he cannot change his South Sudanese pounds into dollars to buy anything.
He only knows that he lost an uncle in the fighting and is concerned that he cannot reach his brothers and many friends.
“A lot of people - I'm calling them, and the number is not going through… This place was all just bodies when I came here… In all the town, street children who were in the market - all these people, innocent people - they killed them. Even the mad people.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions