Sudan's Blue Nile conflict forces painful return to Ethiopia
KURMUK, Ethiopia (Reuters) - Sudan's aerial bombardment of its Blue Nile state has driven thousands of people across the border into Ethiopia, a painful return for many to a refugee existence they thought was over when the Sudanese civil war ended six years ago.
When Khartoum signed the 2005 peace deal that closed one of Africa's deadliest conflicts and paved the way for South Sudan's independence in July this year, Maza Soya led her nine children out of a squalid camp in Ethiopia dreaming of a new life back home in Sudan.
Last month, however, fighting erupted in Blue Nile state between the northern Sudanese army and fighters allied to the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), the dominant force in the newly independent South Sudan.
"Our homes were burnt down to the ground. There were daily air raids on our town," Soya told Reuters two weeks after fleeing back to Ethiopia's frontier town of Kurmuk.
Rebel fighters and residents in Sudan's Kurmuk, a town of the same name just across the forested border, accuse the Sudanese government of waging a sustained, indiscriminate bombing campaign against civilians.
Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir's government denies bombarding Blue Nile, which lies just north of the new north-south border.
But Soya said her husband remained in Kurmuk in Sudan, recovering from shrapnel wounds that burst his stomach open when an Antonov aircraft at high altitude dumped its payload of bombs on their town.
"It is heartbreaking to be back," said Soya, who spent 21 years in one of several camps in Ethiopia that were home to tens of thousands of displaced Sudanese at the height of Sudan's war.
The United Nations says about 27,500 Sudanese refugees have streamed into Ethiopia since the fighting broke out in early September.
PRAYERS, NOT A CAMP
Although Khartoum accepted the independence of South Sudan, analysts say it wants to crush rebels in the joint border area before they become a strong military and political force.
The Washington-based Satellite Sentinel Project has released satellite imagery captured last month it says show an armoured brigade of 3,000 troops deployed along a road leading to rebel-controlled Kurmuk in Sudan.
One government bomb flattened a United Nations office and storage facility in Sudanese Kurmuk in mid-September, said aid workers who declined to be named. Sudan's Antonovs could routinely be seen circling in the skies across the frontier, they said.
Dozens of refugees are crossing the border each day, down from hundreds a month ago. Aid workers expect that number to swell as high as 35,000 before the end of the year.
"Some of the residents have been trapped in the bushes. We expect that when ground troops advance, more will come to Ethiopia," said Aziku Santus, head of the World Food Programme's (WFP) sub-office in western Ethiopia.
"We have opened a new camp and have prepared food for the newcomers," he said.
Many of the refugees, however, have opted to seek shelter in schools or in the homes of locals who share ethnic ties.
Others are camped out in the lush forests of Ethiopia's Benishangul Gumuz province where huge rocks sprout like giant termite mounds.
Some refugees in the Sherkole camp clung to hopes the violence back home would be short-lived and that they might head back soon to salvage their crops.
But for 38-year-old Salah Jeilan, even a brief return to the camps was too painful a reminder of a past life and scorched dreams, and one he would not contemplate.
Jeilan, his wife and seven children trekked for three weeks, their eyes scouring the skies for the white vapour trails of Khartoum's bombers, before reaching Ethiopia.
"God willing, they'll lay down their arms soon. But I would rather stay here and pray than move into a refugee camp after just leaving one," Jeilan said, playing cards under a tree.