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JUBA, South Sudan (AP) — No one thought the desperate experiment would last this long. Nearly four years after the United Nations, in an unprecedented move, threw open its peacekeepers' camps to civilians fleeing the violence of South Sudan's civil war, more than 200,000 people still shelter in the often squalid camps. Now the government is trying to entice them to go home, even as fighting rages on.
The rising frustration over the camps had a flash of global attention when the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, was evacuated while recently visiting one because of a demonstration against South Sudan President Salva Kiir. Many camp residents said they were unhappy with their temporary home.
Even as the crowding and filth are well-documented — the U.N. refugee agency says some in the seven U.N.-run camps resort to harmful coping mechanisms like "alcohol addiction, survival sex, exploitation of all sorts" — many people would rather remain than venture into open conflict. They say they're too scared to leave.
"These people were terrified," the head of the U.N. mission in South Sudan, David Shearer, told The Associated Press. "There's no doubt that many of them would have been killed if we hadn't opened our gates."
They are called Protection of Civilians sites and as they embark on their fifth year of existence, they are an increasing point of contention. South Sudan government officials say their citizens are becoming reliant on aid handouts.
"The (camps) have created a dependency," said Hussein Mar Nyuot, minister of humanitarian affairs and disaster management.
For the first time, South Sudan's government is proposing a "resettlement package" to encourage people to leave the camps for good. Nyuot said it would include farming tools, seeds and other items to help civilians get back on their feet.
The U.N. says it won't force people out of the camps, especially as warnings of ethnic cleansing continue. Tens of thousands of people have been killed in South Sudan's civil war that began in December 2013, and efforts at peace deals and cease-fires have failed. Two million people have fled the country in the largest civilian displacement in Africa since the Rwanda genocide.
South Sudan's efforts should focus on ending the fighting, not closing the camps, experts say.
Discussing closure "should wait until such time as there is a negotiated settlement that ends the war and substantially reduces the violence that has engulfed virtually the entire country," said Payton Knopf, coordinator of the South Sudan senior working group at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Inside the camps, children splash naked in stagnant, contaminated water in makeshift shantytowns while men remain idle and jobless. Women are left to care for families, dodging the threat of gangs, theft, looting and rape.
Threats increase outside the gates, especially for women who venture out daily to collect firewood for cooking.
Last month, Mary Nyang Kuon said she was attacked by more than 20 government soldiers while looking for wood outside a camp in the capital, Juba.
"They tied me to a tree, beat me and raped me," she said. The 37-year-old said she's been too scared to go outside ever since.
The U.N. says it is doing what it can to reduce the number of such attacks. In the past year it has created a 200-meter weapons-free zone around its camps, increased foot patrols and weapons searches and enhanced its intelligence network within the camps.
But Shearer, the U.N. mission chief, acknowledged that at the end of the day "they're still camps."
South Sudan's government has to show it's serious about providing security, he said.
Many camp residents say the government has done nothing to instill confidence.
Charles Riek said he has lived in a camp in Juba since the civil war began, when his older brother was shot dead for being ethnic Nuer, the same as opposition leader Riek Machar.
The 34-year-old Riek said he fears a similar fate. He is one of almost 40,000 people, the majority of them Nuer, living in two camps in Juba.
He sees no end in sight to the war and can't imagine going home.
"I can't go out unless there's a peace agreement," Riek said. "I'm displaced in my own country."