AWERIAL, South Sudan — On the eve of negotiations to end the conflict in South Sudan, rebel forces Wednesday seized major sections of the city of Bor, giving them a strategic foothold for a possible march toward the capital and transforming the banks of the White Nile into an impromptu camp for the tens of thousands of people who have fled the fighting.
In cities and towns across South Sudan, fighting between government troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and rebels aligned with the former vice president, Riek Machar, has driven an estimated 180,000 people from their homes, forcing them to seek shelter behind the walls and fences of more than a dozen UN compounds across the country.
Other civilians have fled into the bush — or like here, onto the riverbank — in the hope of escaping the military offensives and counterassaults that have gripped this nation in the last two weeks. With estimates of as many as 70,000 people seeking refuge here, the area outside Bor has quickly become a focal point of the humanitarian crisis enveloping the country.
Peter Ayuen, 25, a teacher, said his family home had been among those burned to the ground by the rebels pressing into Bor, forcing him and his family to flee so quickly that they had to leave behind his two grandmothers, who were too frail to make the journey.
“We left the two old women in the house,” said Ayuen, adding that he was hoping to receive news or to see them on another barge across the river from Bor. “I’m worried about their lives.” He said many people had died in the fighting over Bor, soldiers and civilians alike.
Miyong G. Kuon, press coordinator for Machar, said in a telephone interview that forces loyal to Machar were “fully in control of Bor.”
Kuon said that government forces were massing to carry out a counterassault but that the rebels had the strength to hold the strategic city. There was no sign of a cease-fire, he said: “As I’m talking to you right now there is sporadic fighting” in a separate oil-producing state as well.
Diplomats in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, worked to get the two sides talking, with the aim of negotiating a cessation of hostilities before the cycle of violence descended into a full-scale civil war. The Ethiopian foreign minister said talks were expected to start Thursday morning between delegations of the opposing sides.
The fighting over Bor has been particularly fierce. A spokesman for the military confirmed that government forces had withdrawn from parts of the city.
The mayor of Bor, Nhial Majak Nhial, said by telephone, “The government is in control of the southern parts of the city,” and added that many residents had fled.
Many Bor residents had begun to escape last week after the government retook the city.
All day long on the road south to Juba on Wednesday, trucks bumped and groaned over the rutted dirt road with dozens of people standing in the back. At sunset, a dozen barges were run up onto the muddy bank, waiting for their next chance to cross.
David Nash, head of mission for Doctors Without Borders in South Sudan, said it was hard to know how many people had gathered on the riverbank for safety, estimating a total of about 70,000.
In cities like Juba and Malakal, civilians have taken refuge on UN bases, but the people here in Awerial were spread out in the open along the river. There was little in the way of shelter.