By Charlton Doki
February 25, 2014 [JUBA] — International anti-poverty NGO Oxfam has pulled its staff out of Malakal in South Sudan, describing the town in Upper Nile as deserted, with dead bodies in the streets and buildings destroyed after fresh fighting erupted at the weekend, country director Jose Birahona said Tuesday.
Oxfam staff were pulled out of Malakal on Sunday, Birahona said.
The evacuated personnel told Birahona that the town has been razed and most civilians have fled.
“What they could see from inside was that the town was quite a ghost town,” Birahona said.
“Probably very few civilians are left in the town. There is a lot of destruction and even they could see some dead bodies,” he said.
United Nations peacekeepers who conducted patrols in Malakal over the weekend said the town has been “looted and burned, with more than 100 bodies scattered along the route.”
A UN spokesperson in New York said Monday that the peacekeepers visited several civilian sites in the town, including churches and a hospital.
“At the Malakal Teaching Hospital, the patrol observed approximately 100 patients, most of whom were wounded or sick,” the spokesperson said.
Thirteen patients “requiring urgent medical attention” were taken to the hospital on the U.N. Mission in South Sudan’s base in Malakal, where some 22,000 civilians have sought refuge.
Oxfam’s Birahona said aid workers are worried that “there could be pockets of people who have escaped from the town and are hiding in the bush,” out of reach of aid agencies, which have no access to civilians who are not sheltering in U.N. compounds.
Birahona said aid workers are very concerned about people who have fled the town and might be living in the open.
“Malakal was a very peaceful town for a long time, even during the conflict with the north,” he said.
“A lot of the people there have never been living in the bush. So they may perhaps find it more difficult to survive in the bush than people who are used to living there.”
He also expressed concern for the thousands who have sought shelter on the U.N. base in Malakal, saying they might face food shortages if the violence does not end soon.
Fighting resumed in Malakal, the capital of the largest oil-producing state in South Sudan, weeks after the two sides in the conflict signed a cessation of hostilities agreement.
“It seems that the violence has not stopped and we are all wondering how long this is going to take to have more houses destroyed, people killed and South Sudanese having to run away from violence,” he said.
“We all hoped that it was now time to build a new country and it’s hard to see how there is destruction and conflict again,” Birahona said.
“Even cities that managed to escape the war with the north, in this south–south war, they have been destroyed,” he said.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by the fighting that broke out in South Sudan in mid-December, and thousands are believed to have been killed, although no official death toll is available.