LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Hundreds of thousands of displaced South Sudanese are too afraid of being attacked or killed to return home despite a three-week-old ceasefire to end fighting that brought the world's youngest nation to the brink of civil war, aid workers say.
Thousands of people have been killed and 868,900 have fled their homes since violence broke out in mid-December, triggered by a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar.
Up to 78,000 people have taken refuge in U.N. bases, including in the capital Juba, and 145,000 more have crossed into neighbouring countries.
On a trip to London to rally support for the government which signed a truce with the opposition on Jan. 23, and to invite investment in the country, South Sudanese Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin said the cessation of hostilities was largely holding.
"That's a step forward. The next is humanitarian assistance," he told a briefing at London-based thinktank Chatham House this week, adding that displaced people should be resettled.
Acknowledging the persistent security concerns of many of the displaced, Benjamin said elders and government representatives should be sent to camps to explain to "some of our citizens who've lost confidence in their government and in their army" that the situation has become calmer.
He also spoke of the need for joint patrols of U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) troops and military police to guarantee civilians were protected.
Although the latest United Nations report says the number of displaced has fallen in one area - Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile State - aid workers say there have been few returns elsewhere.
"When you talk to people that have been affected, they are really quite worried about their belongings, their land, their cattle, their house and they can't wait to go back," Oxfam's South Sudan director Jose Barahona told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview. "If they don't, it's because they really seriously think the conditions are not right."
"It is true the government is making efforts to create conditions in Juba for people to go back to their houses," Barahona said. "But at the same time, we hear weekly, very scary stories from the displaced people in the camps, especially single males that venture out of the camps to go to the market or to go to their houses and they never come back, or they are mistreated."
Another aid worker who had visited Bentiu, a town where fighters loyal to Machar had looted warehouses, commandeered aid agency vehicles and ransacked property, said burnt buildings and soldiers were all that could be seen driving through the streets. "If you were staying in a camp, would that fill you with confidence to return home, that is if your home is still standing?" he said.
Prolonged displacement is damaging to individuals' sense of identity, according to Concern Worldwide's South Sudan country director Elke Leidel. "It does a desperate thing to the human psyche. You're not the teacher or the driver or the carpenter or whatever you were before, you just become a displaced person," she said by telephone from Juba.
RAINS AND HUNGER
The fighting, which has taken on an ethnic dimension with Kiir's Dinka battling Machar's Nuer, has delivered South Sudan its biggest emergency since independence from Sudan in 2011.
Privately, some aid workers have despaired that one of the world's poorest countries has been plunged once again into crisis mode when a few months ago, aid groups, donors and the U.N. had been making long-term development plans for it.
Less than half the displaced - 302,500 - have received some kind of aid, but efforts to expand relief operations have been bogged down by insecurity and the lengthy process of getting permission to enter areas controlled by either government or opposition forces.
With no quick end in sight, aid workers are already preparing for the next potential disaster - the rainy season which promises to bring floods and the threat of a spread in malaria, cholera and respiratory diseases.
"If people have not moved out and if people still remain congested (in camps) I think that's a major, major catastrophe in the waiting," said Norwegian Refugee Council's South Sudan country director, Kennedy Mabonga.
"Humanitarian workers can try their best but if there's not enough space to create the shelters and enough space to have the latrines, obviously it is a big problem."
Another worry is whether enough people will be able to plant their crops during the sowing season which usually runs between April and June, to stave off more hunger in a country which has up to 4 million food insecure people in a normal year.
"It's a longer-term humanitarian crisis," Barahona said. "At least for the rest of the year it's going to be a very tough situation."