The White Nile river is becoming a death-trap for people fleeing the killing in South Sudan

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is "The World." The parties may be sitting down to try to talk peace, but on the ground in south Sudan, you wouldn't know it. Government forces and rebels continue to fight in the world's newest country, about 1,000 Sudanese have already died in the conflict. Hundreds of thousands have been forced to flee their homes. Many of those displaced people are camped on the banks of the White Nile, in a town called Awerial. That's across the river from Bor, a city that's been taken over by the rebels. Conditions at the camp are not good. This teenage boy told the BBC that there's no shelter.

Male: We just stay under the tree, sleeping there. We're drinking dirty water.

Werman: Nick Kulish of the New York Times was also in Awerial earlier today. He spoke to us after returning to the south Sudanese capital, Juba.

Nick Kulish: It's quite intense there. There's 75,000 people who have fighting in Bor. They have little, as the young man said, shelter, as well as very little food, and dirty water. People are beginning to worry that epidemics could break out there.

Werman: Did they go to this town across the river to escape the fighting in their own town, Bor?

Kulish: Yes. Bor has been the epicenter of all fighting in south Sudan, as it often is, because of its strategic position; it's sort of a gateway to the capital of Juba. Awerial sits across the White Nile, so people lined up at the riverbanks to be ferried across in old river barges.

Werman: Why are these residents so afraid?

Kulish: I spoke to many people and most had seen someone killed or at least knew someone who had been killed.

Werman: In their opinion, did it have an ethnic component to it?

Kulish: It's interesting because most people in south Sudan say the same thing, which is that this dispute is a political one between two individuals that spiraled into an ethnic clash. Very few people think that this should be between Dinka or Nuer, the two largest ethnic groups, but most people think that's how it's turned out.

Werman: We heard from that boy earlier, who tells a fairly depressing story. Did you meet any families that were escaping together?

Kulish: Absolutely. The majority of the people there, I would say, are women and children. There were many small children. I even met children who were there alone, whose parents - the price to cross the river was $30 per person, 150 south Sudanese pounds, so in some cases parents just sent their kids across because they couldn't afford the whole family to go. In other cases you would find a 17 person extended family living under one tree, who had the money to get across the river but couldn't afford the exorbitant $30 per person to get down to Juba and get more help.

Werman: It sounds so desperate because everything depends on getting across the river, it seems like.

Kulish: Yes, and people told stories of a lot of drownings at the river. In many cases people, when there was shooting they would rush into the water and small children and old people drowned. You had people falling off of boats and I had at least one instance of somebody saying that their boat had been shot and several people had died on board.

Werman: You also heard about an American citizen who was killed in this fighting - who was that and what happened?

Kulish: The US embassy has not officially confirmed that yet, but our understanding is that a young man, Andrew Bich Abui, 32, was believed to have been killed in a place called Unity state, which is rather isolated from the capital here, and where some pretty vicious fighting had taken place.

Werman: Do you know what he was doing there in south Sudan?

Kulish: My understanding was that he was there because he was preparing for his marriage and he had returned to his ancestral village. There were many stories with people who also lived in the United States, also called themselves "Lost Boys", who had come back for Christmas, some coming back for the first time in years. Instead of finding a happy homecoming, they were met with violence and devastation.

Werman: Horrible story. Nick Kulish of the New York Times, thank you.

Kulish: Thanks for having me.