South Sudan troops move to retake Bor

Bor is the last major town in rebel hands after almost a month of heavy conflict

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Crackles of gunfire send hundreds of people fleeing in a stampede -- South Sudanese civilians, traumatized after escaping brutal fighting in which their relatives died, are still terrified of fresh attacks.

But this time it is celebratory gunfire, as dozens of soldiers board a barge to cross the same White Nile river that tens of thousands of fleeing civilians crossed in the opposite direction.

The troops are returning to the battle to retake the key town of Bor, the last major town in rebel hands after almost a month of heavy conflict.

“Even here across the river, people are still so scared the rebels will come and attack,” said Simon Deng, a student who, like over 80,000 other civilians fled Bor west across the river’s vast swamplands, according to the United Nations.

“They have suffered so much, seen so much killing.”

Day after day barges loaded with civilians arrive on the far river bank having escaped the fighting in Bor.

Some of those included soldiers separated from their units when comrades rebelled, who are now regrouping to return back across to the fight.

South Sudan has been gripped by violence since Dec. 15, when clashes broke out between army units loyal to South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and those supporting ex-vice president Riek Machar.

Top U.N. aid chief in South Sudan Toby Lanzer has warned of an “unfolding humanitarian catastrophe” in the young country.

The U.N. has said that “very substantially in excess” of 1,000 people have already been killed in the fighting, and that nearly a quarter of a million people have fled their homes.

What started as power struggle has morphed into a bitter civil conflict with ethnic overtones, pitting Kiir’s majority Dinka tribe aginst Machar’s Nuer community.

Mamuor Akuer, 31, a father of four, was shot in the leg when gunmen from the Nuer people attacked his family, as they sheltered on a river island with their precious cattle.

Alongside the Nuer gunmen fought mutinous soldiers in army fatigues, he said.

“We were guarding the cattle and they came and took us by surprise, shooting and killing... 10 of us were killed and four wounded,” Akuer said.

But Akuer managed to escape by boat down the narrow waterways to reach the once-sleepy village of Minkammen, where he received treatment for his bullet wound.

“Now I am powerless, I can’t feed my children... my heart is broken,” he said, as he rested on a bed in an emergency clinic set up by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF-Doctors Without Borders).

The battle to retake Bor continues.

The government has said it is mobilizing thousands of additional troops, who are expected to join the offensive on the capital of Jonglei state.

Morale of the government troops has been boosted after comrades on Friday wrested back the key northern oil city of Bentiu from the rebels.

But in the opposite direction from where the soldiers head, the wounded and all those affected by the war flee, stretching those supporting them to the limits.

“The vast majority are people suffering from bloody diarrhea, which is related to the bad conditions they are living in,” said Hugues Robert-Nicoud, MSF program manager.

Over 30 people with gunshot wounds have been treated by the tiny MSF clinic here since fighting began.

“We have treated people every day related to the war, including people who have been wounded in the fighting,” Robert-Nicoud added.