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Fighting prompts staff to evacuate border town

South Sudan, April 27, 2012

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Reuters/Goran Tomasevic, courtesy the Thomson Reuters Foundation – AlertNet  </span>
    A soldier from the Sudan People's Liberation Army walks in a market destroyed in an air strike on Monday in Rubkona, near Bentiu along South Sudan's border with Sudan. Photo: Reuters/Goran Tomasevic, courtesy the Thomson Reuters Foundation – AlertNet
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Mathieu Rouquette/Mercy Corps  </span>
    South Sudan Country Director Mathieu Rouquette met these girls in one of the Bentiu markets Mercy Corps has supported. He hopes teams can get back to helping them and others soon in the wake of bombings there this week. Photo: Mathieu Rouquette/Mercy Corps

All but two Mercy Corps staff members have been evacuated from Bentiu, the beleaguered border town that has been in the news recently as the target of Sudanese air strikes.

Rising tensions between Sudan and South Sudan over contested border areas have escalated tensions to a de facto state of war between the two countries. Bentiu, the capital of South Sudan's Unity State, has been the target of multiple bombings since late February, allegedly by Sudanese warplanes.

"The bombings have shattered hopes of peace and prosperity in Bentiu, and there's fear of hearing the planes coming back," says Country Director Mathieu Rouquette from the country's capital, Juba.

"I can't help thinking of two little girls I met there two months ago, in a market full of small businesses we're supporting — the very same market where one of the bombs hit," said Rouquette. "What has become of them? How are they coping? How soon can we come back to help them again?"

Our programs to teach improved techniques to farmers and offer support to small businesses are currently on hold until staff can safely return from Leer, a town to the south where Mercy Corps runs similar programs.

Staff in Leer are also responding to the violence by developing safe learning spaces for children displaced by the fighting so they can continue their schooling.

Mercy Corps has been working in Bentiu to support vulnerable communities — including post-war returnees, youth and farmers. South Sudan is only six years removed from a devastating, decades-long civil war fought when it was part of Sudan.

Nine months after becoming its own country, hopes for South Sudan's peaceful development have been overshadowed by conflicts fueled by oil, poorly defined borders and hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally-displaced people trying to survive on strained resources.

Earlier this week, President Obama urged the nations to end their aggressions and return to negotiations. On Tuesday, the UN Security Council called for an immediate ceasefire.

"There will likely be more air raids and skirmishes on different hot spots" along the border, Rouquette says, but he's hopeful that international pressure will make a difference and that staff will return to Bentiu as early as next week.