AKOBO, South Sudan – United Nations peacekeepers are returning to the only U.N. base in South Sudan "clearly" in an area under opposition control as residents hope for protection from what they call growing attacks by government troops.
"We've had several requests to be there" in Akobo, U.N. mission chief David Shearer told The Associated Press, calling the gap in services there significant. The first peacekeepers are expected to arrive in the next few weeks.
This will be the first U.N. peacekeeper presence in Akobo since 2013, when the base of 43 troops was abandoned after armed men stormed the compound and killed three Indian peacekeepers.
Situated near the Ethiopian border, the bustling town is one of South Sudan's last opposition strongholds and has become a refuge for thousands of ethnic Nuer fleeing the fighting in Upper Nile and Jonglei states.
South Sudan's five-year civil war has killed tens of thousands and displaced millions amid warnings of ethnic violence. The latest cease-fire, which took effect Dec. 24, was broken just hours later with both sides blaming each other for the violations.
Residents said clashes have increased in recent weeks in villages around Akobo, with people from other parts of Jonglei state streaming in daily in search of safety. Authorities estimate 2,000 people have arrived since the beginning of the month.
During a visit to the rebel-held territory last week, the AP spoke with several people who fled attacks.
Standing in a dilapidated school where she now shelters, Mary Maway said she arrived five days ago.
"They killed my children," the 28-year-old said, lowering her gaze to the floor.
Earlier this month when government troops attacked her town of Yuai, Maway said she watched soldiers shoot her 5-year-old and 6-year-old.
"I hope the U.N. will protect us here," she said.
South Sudan's government has repeatedly said that any attacks it has carried out during the cease-fire are only in self-defense.
The opposition government in Akobo said it hoped the U.N. peacekeepers will hold those responsible for the fighting to account.
"If we're attacked they'll be witness and can respond," said Gatluak Gatkek, deputy for Akobo's humanitarian arm of the government. "If there's an attack on civilians they can go onto the base and be protected."
But the new U.N. presence will be different from its nine other bases around the country, with six of them sheltering more than 200,000 civilians after they threw open their doors in an unprecedented move when the civil war erupted in December 2013.
The U.N. said it is trying a different strategy in Akobo, with peacekeepers flying in for a few days every week rather than setting up something permanent. The new base is a small house with a yard surrounded by barbed wire.
The idea is to take a more "nimble and proactive approach" to peacekeeping, U.N. mission chief Shearer said, which will allow the mission to respond rapidly in areas where the security and humanitarian situation deteriorates.
Aid workers on the ground said they hope the extra security will help them expand their activities. South Sudan has been called the world's most dangerous country for aid workers, with 28 killed last year.
"It will allow agencies to change from an emergency response to recovery and resilience," said Benjamin Flomo, Oxfam's acting program manager in Akobo.