South Sudanese youth have been reported kidnapped by armed gangs in Sudan and sent to fight -- including in the recent Heglig oil conflict, South Sudan’s ambassador told AFP in an interview.
But Kau Nak, who admits his job is the toughest in his young country's foreign service, optimistically forecast that current tensions which have raised fears of all-out war will not last.
For the moment, though, “the war has affected everybody, whether from this side or from the other side.”
His mobile phone is always on, he says, fielding calls from Southerners needing help or relaying another story about an abducted youth.
“The last information I received yesterday, that somebody was grabbed in the market here in Souk Arabi, and up to now nobody knows where he is... It happens on a daily basis to South Sudanese,” he said in a high-ceilinged lounge room at the embassy.
Nak said armed South Sudanese are kidnapping their countrymen on Sudanese soil. While some are able to pay a ransom and earn their release, Nak suspects others “are taken to (the) front.”
Southerners have also complained to him about kidnappings along the routes to South Sudan.
Church sources last December made similar allegations, that ethnic Southern youth were being abducted to fight in Sudan’s border region, where the over-stretched military is battling insurgents, or with rebels operating in South Sudan.
Khartoum denies backing insurgents over the border.
The number of kidnappings is difficult to gauge, says Nak, a former water driller who joined the South's foreign service after the 2005 peace agreement ended Sudan’s 22-year civil war and led to South Sudan's independence in July.
“It varies. Some people they say... ‘You know, from this bus they have loaded about 20 people, 10 people’.”
Nak said one man, abducted earlier this year, recently fled into South Sudan and contacted a relative there.
“Some of them were engaged in the current conflict of Heglig and it seems one of them managed to run away... some of them died...,” he said, recounting what the relative told him.
The escapee said he had been sent to fight with a militia for the Sudanese side.
The most serious border fighting yet between Sudan and South Sudan raged in April around the Heglig oil region, which is part of Sudan's South Kordofan state although the South disputes its status.
South Sudan’s army occupied the Heglig area for 10 days and Sudan carried out air strikes over the border in Unity state.
Nak says another immediate concern is the Sudanese parliament's planned debate this week of a bill which, after Heglig, proposes punitive measures against South Sudan.
The bill would confiscate South Sudanese assets in the north, order a withdrawal of Sudan's wealth in the South, and restrict diplomatic activity, he says.
Nak jokes that he has already restricted his movement because he lives at the embassy, but the bill is no laughing matter.
It comes at a time of heightened nationalist sentiment in Sudan.
If diplomatic activity is limited, South Sudan will retaliate, meaning the two sides’ envoys will be unable to fulfill their role of reducing tensions, he says.
“They will not be able to assess the real problem so that they advise government on how to handle the problem in a peaceful way. So it is kind of allowing the war to spread.... It’s not a good decision.”
The embassy estimates that about 350,000 South Sudanese remain in the north after an April 8 deadline for them to go South or legalize their status. Nak said most of those remaining are awaiting transport South.
Sudan’s 1983-2005 civil war killed two million people and drove many others to the north, but independence has led hundreds of thousands to return South.
A privileged few with enough money flew home, until Sudan implemented new rules treating the Khartoum-Juba route as an international journey from April 9, effectively halting flights.
While efforts to resume air links are stalled -- like so many other unresolved issues between the two nations -- Nak says encouraging cross-border links between ordinary people can only reduce tensions.
“These people are the ambassadors of peace,” he says.
Chuckling in agreement that the current climate must make his job the most challenging for a South Sudanese diplomat, he says: “It is... but all what is happening will not last long.”
An Arabic speaker, Nak says he himself has friends and relatives in the north, reflecting close ties between people of what had been one nation.
“So the reality is, let's live together,” he says. “It is only political differences that are trying to overshadow other unifying factors.”