JUBA, South Sudan (AP) — Armed South Sudanese rebels have begun taking up positions in the capital, a risky but crucial step to end two years of war.
The Associated Press and other journalists on Thursday toured one of the rebel camps where fighters dressed in green fatigues stood in semi-circle formation, chanting call-and-response war songs and waving their AK-47s in unison.
More than 900 of the rebels have set up camp in two designated sites in Juba as part of a process to secure the city for the scheduled return on April 18 of their leader, Riek Machar.
The fighters will eventually reintegrate into the army, rebel Gen. James Koang, who is overseeing the process, told the journalists.
Some rebels told AP they expect to safely reunite with the troops they've battled the last two years.
"We lost so many of our brothers, but now we have seen each other, so I'm happy we shall greet each other," said fighter Lagu Joseph. "If we meet each other, we will sit together as brothers."
The rebels here said their bigger concern is living conditions. They said they only have bedframes but no mattresses and sleep in the open.
During the journalists' visit, a few of the fighters blew vuvezelas or held tattered South Sudanese flags which flapped in the morning breeze.
There were only a few blue tents, a leaking pipe where soldiers filled mugs to drink, some newly dug pit latrines, and piles of metal bedframes and bundles of grass to be used to make huts.
This camp for the rebels, who are mostly Nuer, is in a few hastily cleared acres (hectares) of land behind a rocky outcrop which looms over Juba. It's near a sprawling United Nations base where nearly 30,000 Nuer civilians have sought shelter.
The war began here two years ago when clashes broke out between Nuer and Dinka, and targeted killings of Nuer soldiers and civilians, forcing Machar to flee the city.
While some soldiers were returning to the city they once called home, others were arriving for the first time, never having seen so many buildings in a city that has grown so fast that no one knows its population. Estimates run from 300,000 to over a million.
"We are coming for peace," said Khor Dabuol, a high school teacher who joined the rebellion after the war began. "We stayed all years in the bush, waiting, wanting food, so we come here. Now we are very happy."
Over 1,300 rebel soldiers and more than 3,000 government troops are to be deployed in the city, according to a peace deal signed between Machar, an ethnic Nuer, and President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, last year. The agreement installs Machar once again as vice president.
A major test of the deal is the smooth return of Machar's troops to Juba. The chance that there could be a flashpoint is ever-present.
The government has not allowed ceasefire monitors to verify if it is reducing its military presence in Juba.
The camp here lacks defensive fortifications. On Thursday, there wasn't a trench nor a wire surrounding the area assigned for the troops.
The rebels only carried rifles, compared to truckloads of government troops who patrol the rest of Juba with heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Government anti-aircraft missiles, attack helicopters and tanks are stationed at various points in or around the city.
Aid groups, meanwhile, have warned that the country is running out of medicine and facing its largest hunger crisis since South Sudan gained its independence from Sudan in 2011, becoming the world's newest country.
The country is suffering from a "nationwide lack of essential medicine," Doctors Without Borders International President Dr. Joanne Liu said. The drug shortage puts thousands of lives in jeopardy and will disproportionately affect women and children, Liu said
South Sudan's current budget allocates no money to drug purchases but sharply increases defense spending.
World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization warned Tuesday of "alarming" levels of hunger with 5.8 million people, nearly half the country's population, unsure where their next meal will come from.
South Sudan's civil war broke out in December 2013. Kiir and Machar signed the latest peace deal in August and are slated to form a unity government this month.