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.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Now to the front line in South Sudan. The south's government has accused the north of launching new airstrikes, a charge the north denies. This comes a week after the UN Security Council called on both Sudans to stop fighting and settle their disputes or face possible sanctions. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports now from South Sudan in a place called Unity State, which has borne the brunt of the North's cross-border strikes.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Morale boosting songs keep up the spirits of South Sudan soldiers. They're observing a cease fire amid a tense calm here in Panakuach, less 10 miles from the frontier with Sudan, in the oil zone. After singing, Private John Nkoi Deng says he knows what he's defending.
PRIVATE JOHN NKOI DENG: This is our land. Yes, it belongs to us.
QUIST-ARCTON: Southern troops have dug trenches in the black earth at the front line straddling the oil producing region.
(SOUNDBITE OF TROOPS SINGING)
QUIST-ARCTON: Major General Mangar Buong says his men remain on alert and on the defensive in Panakuach. Last month, the south briefly captured the oil-rich town of Heglig, widely accepted to be in the north. That move triggered the most recent clashes. Southerners claim Heglig as their own, but pulled out their troops ostensibly because of international pressure.
General Buong warns that if dialogue breaks down and Sudanese air strikes continue, South Sudan will respond with force and claim what he calls its territorial rights, including Heglig.
GENERAL MANGAR BUONG: We don't want war, but it is our right. It is our right to defend South Sudan.
QUIST-ARCTON: A bumpy two-hour drive away from the front line in Bentiu, the capital of the south's oil-exporting Unity State, survivors are slowly recovering in the hospital from air strikes by Sudan. The north denies any such aerial bombardments and says the south is backing rebels who are destabilizing Sudan.
PETER GATKUOTH TOB: Since the beginning of April, we receive, of course, many cases of different injuries, injuries related to dropping of bombs. Most of them are civilian, if not all are civilian.
QUIST-ARCTON: Dr. Peter Gatkuoth Tob, the medical director of Bentiu State Hospital is treating the patients.
TOB: We don't know what is the reason for dropping bombs on the civilians. (Unintelligible) It's a very painful...
QUIST-ARCTON: Dr. Peter Gatkuoth Tob, the medical director of Bentiu State Hospital, is treating the patients.
TOB: We don't know what the reason is for dropping bombs among the civilians. As a doctor, I will (unintelligible). It's very painful to me.
QUIST-ARCTON: Sitting up and staring down at her amputated left leg in disbelief, Nyachieng Nguot Teny is clearly traumatized. She's 25 and the mother of 7-month-old Dak Tab, a baby boy with a fractured limb.
NYACHIENG NGUOT TENY: (Foreign language spoken)
QUIST-ARCTON: Nguot Teny describes hearing a plane and seven loud booms - bombs being dropped. The eighth, she didn't hear. It landed on her thatched-roof hut blowing her leg away and wounding her son. The next thing, she woke up in the hospital.
MOHAMED ABDERAHMAN KILI: (Foreign language spoken)
QUIST-ARCTON: In the ward next door lies Mohamed Abderahman Kili, a 56-year-old trader. He's another casualty from an earlier bombing in April. The doctor says he suffered more than 90 percent burns when his shop was hit. Most of Kili's black skin has peeled off, leaving a mass of livid pink and yellow; his face, ears, arms, and back are still raw.
KILI: (Foreign language spoken)
QUIST-ARCTON: Despite his horrific burns, Kili believes Sudan and South Sudan can live in peace side by side. The young amputee mother says it's in God's hands whether her infant son grows up in peace.
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Panakuach, South Sudan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.