Yellow flowered vines crawl through empty window frames and up crumbling brick walls. Electricity poles slant along the road, cables hanging dead from cross-arms. The sign for Malakal city council is riddled with bullet holes.
South Sudan President Salva Kiir and rebel groups may have signed a peace agreement on Wednesday to end a civil war that killed at least 50,000 people, but those who fled the country’s second largest city, a merchant hub turned ghost-town, are fearful of returning.
Josephine Adiemis, who lives with her family of eight in a nearby camp run by the United Nations, does not believe it is safe to go back home. Squatters may have sneaked into her house amid the chaos, the 42-year-old said.
“There is no peace now. If I go back before peace implementation, I will maybe be killed by that person still in my house,” Adiemis said, sitting in front of a registration office at the UN camp, overlooking makeshift houses covered in white plastic sheets.
Simon Pakuang, who ran away from his village near Malakal on the White Nile, can relate.
“Fighting broke out and then many people were killed. That’s why people ran,” said the 63-year-old, now living in the camp among 25,000 people.
Violence flared up in the area in 2015. South Sudan had plunged into warfare in 2013, two years after independence from Sudan, when a political dispute between Kiir and then vice-president Riek Machar turned into armed confrontation.
In total, an estimated quarter of South Sudan’s population of 12 million is displaced and its economy, heavily reliant on crude oil production, ruined.
In Malakal, a former hub for goods shipped to neighbouring Sudan, tables lie in abandoned schools, damaged Korans are seen in abandoned mosques and cars rot in fields.
The UN camp near Malakal was meant to be temporary, said Hazel de Wet, who runs the UN mission in Malakal’s Upper Nile region.
She is cautiously optimistic about peace prospects. But before people return to their homes in Malakal and the surrounding villages, security challenges must be addressed, she said.
“People came to seek protection and before they leave, they want to be assured of their safety and security,” she told Reuters.
Peter Aban Amon, minister of information in the Upper Nile region, was encouraging people to go home.
“Malakal is well managed by government, which is now functioning,” he said, adding the city had seen a slight growth in population over the past two years.
A glance at the area suggests most people still prefer the security offered by the heavily guarded UN camp. Its market is bustling while Malakal’s previously busy market is eerily quiet. Fish from the Nile are taken directly to the UN market, not the city’s.
Malakal has seen numerous battles between government SPLA-forces and rebel groups. It changed hands many times and was been almost completely destroyed in the process.
For Pakuang, the time to go back has not arrived yet.
When he visited his village to look for his house in May last year, he was happy to see it had not been wrecked in crossfire – but surprised to find it occupied.
Squatters asked him if he wanted his house back, but he said no. Instead, Pakuang asked them to care for his home until he feels safe enough to resume his old life.
“I told them: please keep it clean and please don’t destroy it.”