Like rolls of fierce thunder, the booming sounds of a barrage of artillery shells reverberate for what seems like minutes, interspersed with the roar of bomber planes.
Bakkies carrying dozens of men to the front line swerve into thorn bushes, the soldiers sitting on the back pointing up at the dots in the sky.
“Now, we must pretend we’re sleeping,” a young soldier whispers, smiling as he demonstrates how he lies stock still in the shade of a thorn tree every time the Antonov aircraft circle over.
Another soldier, hands clasped in prayer position under his chin, inches from his rifle, squeezes his eyes tighter as the drone of the engine draws closer.
“This is Southern Sudan — this is the sound of it,” the Southern army’s frontline deputy commander Mangar Buong says, explaining the bomber planes are “always hanging over us”.
“Until today, the government of South Sudan has been talking and maintaining peace, while militarily we have been maintaining our defences,” he adds, accusing northern neighbour Sudan of “wanting to take the oil fields by force”.
‘He does not believe in logic’
Sudan President “Omar al-Bashir, he believes in this,” Buong says, flexing a bicep. “He does not believe in logic,” he adds, shaking his head.
Bitter clashes that broke out follow border fighting that erupted last month between the neighbours, raising international concerns at the risk of a full-blown war.
Drawing circles in the dust between empty bullet cases, Buong explains the problem of his northern neighbour, that lost around three quarters of the country’s crude when South Sudan seceded in July.
“You see — if there is oil here, Bashir comes, if there is oil there, he goes that way. You see? This will go on and on,” until Khartoum sees the South as a real country with sovereign resources, he says.
“They want to take the oil fields by force. We closed down our oil, and they want to reopen it by force, to occupy it and use the oil themselves,” he adds.
Force commander James Gatduel Gatluak meanwhile puts his fingers to his forehead as he waits for news about his men fighting Sudanese troops close by. Chickens peck around his boots.
Army generals say that the South is exhausted by war, and that the end of one of Africa’s longest civil wars in 2005 only turned out to be a short rest.
“We have seen the colours of war for 50 years, and we don’t want to see another north-south war, but our brothers are not genuine,” Gatluak says of the renewed conflict.
He thinks the latest clashes were started to “derail peace” and to give Bashir an excuse not to sign an agreement on the demarcation of the oil-rich border, that was supposed to happen in the southern capital Juba on April 3.
The airwaves here are filled with revolutionary songs, as big brass bands interrupted by rousing speeches not heard since the 1983 to 2005 civil war aim to spur on Southern troops.
A nearby trench would make a better shelter than the sparse thorn trees favoured by the soldiers, but South Sudan says it was built by Khartoum to house a new pipeline running from Sudan’s oil facilities in Heglig to southern fields, to illegally siphon off the South’s crude.
“We found it like this,” says field commander Daniel Marin, his eyes on the planes circling overhead.
“It has been planned by the Sudan government who want to come and loot our oil — it’s coming from Heglig,” just kilometers away, and stretches 11km south, he says.
A short distance away, a grey mushroom cloud of smoke rises metres above the ground from an air strike, a reminder of the inaccurate but indiscriminate nature of these bombs.
Marin still has his eyes glued to the sky when he concedes that “some people get hurt” by the bombardments, before rallying his troops to push forward to Heglig where they will face Sudanese forces once again.
But while casualty figures from the army are not forthcoming, one soldier in the state capital Bentiu says that “there are so many bodies at the front line, so many dead”, that it is not possible to bury them or bring them back. — AFP