There's a tense calm at South Sudan's front line, just 10 miles from the frontier with Sudan, its neighbor to the north. South Sudanese commander Maj. Gen. Mangar Buong says his troops remain on alert and on the defensive.
There is not a civilian in sight. They all fled the area, known as Panakuach, after Sudan's recent aerial bombardments and escalating concerns about a full-scale war.
South Sudan's soldiers sing morale-boosting tunes to rally the forces and keep their spirits up. They've dug trenches in the black earth, which is littered with bullet casings and remnants of what they say are bombs dropped by Sudan's air force.
After the singing, Pvt. John Nkoi Deng says he knows what he's defending. "This is our land. It belongs to us," he tells NPR. His colleagues nod in agreement.
Last month, South Sudan briefly captured the oil-rich town of Heglig — widely considered to be part of Sudan. That move triggered the most recent clashes. Southerners claim Heglig, which they call Panthou, which means "the place of thou trees" in the Nuer language.
Dispute Over Oil Region
The South's troops have left Heglig, though the sides disagree over whether it was international pressure, South Sudan's demonstration of goodwill or Sudan's military forces that drove them out.
Regardless, the departure clearly did not please South Sudan's military, including Buong, though it deferred to the politicians.
Buong says the army awaits the outcome of talks to try to resolve the South's explosive quarrels with its neighbor over oil revenues, border demarcation and other issues.
But he is unequivocal. If dialogue breaks down and Sudanese aerial and ground attacks continue, then South Sudan will respond with force.
"We don't want war," the general says, "but it is our right to defend South Sudan."
He says the South is waiting for the world to assist in settling the differences, but warns: "I want to ask the world community to help the people of the North and South. But if the world community fails in this case of borders, then not just me, even my son, will go [to Heglig]."
South Sudan's military has no air force, and the government wants U.N. peacekeepers to create a demilitarized zone in the disputed oil region until the problems are worked out.
Civilian Casualties In Hospital
A bumpy two-hour drive from the front line leads to the South Sudanese town of Bentiu, the capital of oil-exporting Unity State. Survivors are recovering in the hospital from a series of bombings in April and May.
Dr. Peter Gatkuoth Tob, the medical director of Bentiu State Hospital, says that since the beginning of April, patients have been admitted with injuries directly related to bomb attacks by Sudanese warplanes. Most of the patients are women and children, he notes.
"As a doctor, it's very painful to me," he tells NPR. "They have no power to defend themselves from bombs or from guns. So we don't know what the reason is for dropping bombs among the civilians. It's a very painful situation."
Sitting up and staring down at her amputated left leg, Nyachieng Nguot Teng, 25, is clearly traumatized. The young mother is on one hospital bed, while her 7-month-old boy, Dak Tab, is lying asleep, with a fractured leg, beside his grandmother on another bed.
Nguot describes hearing a plane and seven loud booms from bombs being dropped. The eighth, she did not hear. It landed on her thatched-roof hut on May 5. The next thing she knew, she woke up in the hospital, minus her left leg.
She says whether her infant son will grow up in peace is in God's hands. But, she adds, "he will always know that his mother lost her leg for our beloved land."
Slow Recovery For Burn Victim
In the ward next door lies Mohamed Abderahman Kili, 56, a trader and another casualty from a bombing in April. Dr. Gatkuoth says Kili suffered burns to more than 90 percent of his body when his shop was hit.
"I'm just an ordinary man, working to feed his family and send his children to school, I don't know why this happened to me," he laments.
Most of Kili's black skin has peeled off, leaving a mass of pink and yellow — his face, arms, ears and back are still raw. His singed beard and hair are only now beginning to grow back.
Kili says he still believes Sudan and South Sudan can make peace and live side by side; he appeals to both countries to talk their way out of their problems.
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