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Sydney's South Sudanese community braces for further sad news of loved ones

Asunta Manok left with her 10-year-old son Makuei for his first trip to her homeland the day the shooting started in South Sudan.

By the time they arrived in the capital Juba from their home in Seven Hills, she had to blindfold him so he could not see the birds picking at bodies by the side of the road. She told him the constant crack of gunfire was fireworks.

Last year the annual pilgrimage of South Sudanese refugees back to their homeland turned deadly. At least one Australian has been killed and there are grave fears for the safety of perhaps hundreds more. It is feared they are stranded in their home provinces without transport or even food or shelter, at risk of being caught in the fighting that erupted after a failed coup attempt before Christmas.

It is estimated between 300 and 400 members of Sydney's South Sudanese community travelled to the world's newest country in late November and early December to visit friends and relatives, deliver gifts and participate in rituals.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade says it has evacuated 200, and is urging any remaining to get out while commercial flights are still running. It says the government's ability to assist Australians in South Sudan is ''extremely limited''.

It is estimated at least 1000 people have been killed and more than 200,000 displaced from their homes since fighting broke out between the government of President Salva Kiir and forces loyal to former vice-president Riek Machar.


''The situation is very bad'', Ms Manok said. ''There are a lot of people dead''. She and her son were there only one day before her husband, Joseph, told her to contact Australian consular officials, who arranged for their immediate evacuation to Nairobi on an American military plane.

But Sydney community leader Matur Gorjok Gak said those visiting family outside the capital, especially in the three worst affected states of Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile, were stuck without transport. ''I don't know how they will get out of there,'' Dr Matur said. 'I think we will hear some sad news again.''

Sydney's South Sudanese community is in mourning for John Mac Acuek, 42, from Blacktown who was killed last Tuesday near the town of Bor after the four-wheel-drive in which he was travelling was ambushed by rebel fighters.

Mr Acuek's widow Elizabeth Leek said he had been working in South Sudan to pay for the education of their five children. ''He is a family man,'' she said. ''He never let his family down. He never turned his back from anyone.''

She last saw her husband in September while visiting South Sudan. At Christmas, instead of returning home, he remained in South Sudan to help his family there escape the conflict, she said. ''His mother and brother and sister are there and he was trying to get them to safety,'' she said.

Mr Acuek's brother, Deng Thiak Adut, said: ''The country is only two years old and now they are killing each other. They are dying now without a purpose.''

Ms Manok's husband Joseph, a social worker, keeps calling their family in Rumbek, five hours by car from the capital. He has not heard from his mother and brother since before Christmas. ''They are not answering,'' he said. ''I don't know what is wrong.''