AT AN orphanage at the edge of Juba, South Sudan’s battered capital, there are no longer any children. Yellowing toothbrushes sit in a tin hanging in the sun; muddied exercise books litter the floor. The only occupants now are a few soldiers who lounge around in the shaded huts listening to the radio. The orphanage, which is run by an Austrian NGO, had to move to a more secure part of town after fighting broke out nearby in July. It is now considering moving back—but only if the security lasts, a tough call in a country beset by economic crisis and dire warnings of a possible impending genocide.
The fighting in July was between the forces of Salva Kiir, the president, and Riek Machar, the former vice-president, after a peace deal, never properly respected in the first place, broke down. In the fighting, which lasted several days, Mr Machar’s forces were chased out of Juba. Since then the city has returned to an uneasy calm. But the rest of South Sudan has not. A war that had previously been concentrated in the swampy north of the country has spread to southern areas, which had been peaceful. Worse, the fighting has fomented violence between ethnic groups. Diplomats are proving slow to respond
The new battlefields are in the Equatoria region, along the borders with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Equatorians have a reputation for being educated professionals, who have largely stayed out of politics. But the spread of Dinka cattle herders into their territory, together with a sense of exclusion from the Dinka-dominated government (Mr Kiir is a Dinka), has fuelled resentment. In July, when Mr Machar fled from Juba, walking to Congo over a period of 40 days, he exploited this effectively, militarising Equatorians as he went along, explains Alfred Taban, the editor of the Juba Monitor, a newspaper.
In South Sudan, the violence typically follows a pattern, of attacks launched by Mr Machar’s opposition that are punished by government reprisals, which often target civilians. And indeed as the government has lost its grip in Equatoria, its soldiers—from the predominantly Dinka armed forces—have been harming civilians on ethnic lines. Entire towns, such as Yei, a city near the border once known for its cultural life, have reportedly been denuded of people. Since July the number of South Sudanese refugees in Uganda has increased from 250,000 to almost 600,000. New arrivals cross the border at a rate of 25,000 a week.
This has sparked a furious debate about what to call the violence. On November 11th Adam Dieng, the UN’s special adviser on the prevention of genocide, said that there was a “strong risk of violence…with a potential for genocide”. In Juba, many analysts fiercely dispute the term—they say it is a desperate attempt to get attention for a conflict that has been largely ignored by the international community. But few deny that ethnic violence has spread.
What happens now may depend on the world’s response. After Mr Dieng’s comments, America seems more likely to embrace a proposed UN arms embargo that it has hitherto been uncertain about (not least because Russia might veto it).
The South Sudanese government, in an attempt to avert this pressure—and perhaps to attract aid that would slow an economic crisis that has produced an inflation rate of 830%—has embraced the idea of a “regional protection force” of soldiers from neighbouring countries. But whether it would actually let them stop the violence is uncertain. South Sudan already has 12,000 UN soldiers on its territory. Some 210,000 people languish in UN protection camps, unable to go home. And outside, the conflict goes on.