YAMBIO - Attacks attributed to Ugandan-led rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) have killed at least 188 civilians and displaced 68,000 in southern Sudan since January 2009, with 137 abductions also reported, according to the UN.
"Many innocent people are losing their lives every week, and the United Nations is very concerned about the killing, abduction, maiming and displacement of innocent civilians," said Ameerah Haq, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Sudan.
In Sudan, Western Equatoria State has been hardest hit by the recent upsurge in attacks blamed on the LRA, which have also taken place in several regions in neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the Central African Republic (CAR).
"During the last six weeks alone, 11 incidents of LRA attacks have been reported, seven of them in the first week of September," Haq told reporters on 11 September during a visit to Yambio, the state capital of Western Equatoria.
In Nairobi, Justin Labeja, the head of the LRA's peace negotiating team, questioned the authorship of the attacks.
"It is very unfair because nobody can come up with clear concrete evidence. Who can say this is the LRA of [leader Joseph] Kony who is doing this?" he said.
What the "real LRA" is any more is hard to pin down. When it emerged in northern Uganda in the late 1980s the LRA was made up almost exclusively of people from the region's Acholi community, fighting perceived marginalization. The LRA now includes nationals from Sudan, the DRC and CAR - many as a result of recruitment-by-abduction. In southern Sudan "LRA" has been used as a catch-all label for any armed group which attacks civilians.
However, those displaced by the latest attacks reported tactics which bore the hallmarks of the LRA, including grotesque killings and targeting church congregations.
Combating the small groups of guerrillas - experienced in jungle warfare and able to slip across international frontiers with apparent ease - has become a hard task.
"There is not much coming from the [Sudanese] state, they are not able to provide the security that they [people] need," said the UN’s Haq. "While the humanitarian community is providing food and other non-food items, the food itself is becoming a magnet for LRA attacks… The answer to that is really how we can provide security around a perimeter."
Extra troops from the south’s military, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), have been sent to the region, according to spokesman Maj-Gen Kuol Diem Kuol.
"We are working hard and doing all we can to ensure the safety of civilians in the region," he explained.
The main military force are Ugandan troops, whose soldiers have established camps in Sudan to try and hunt down the now mobile LRA units in southern Sudan, DRC and CAR.
The UN peacekeeping mission in Sudan (UNMIS) has just 200 blue helmets based in the sprawling region of Western Equatoria.
Officials said the force has been stretched by a string of recent violent inter-ethnic clashes elsewhere in southern Sudan.
Its mandate, one official added, needed to be beefed up by the UN Security Council to allow active military engagement against the LRA.
"We need an integrated approach to really provide security to these people, [and] that will require the support of the UN and UNMIS," said Jemma Nunu Kumba, the governor of Western Equatoria.
"UNMIS needs to get involved just like MONUC [the UN peacekeeping mission] in Congo [DRC], to be able to repulse the rebels when they are attacking the civilians," he added.
Those displaced by the LRA say more effort is needed, not simply to hunt the rebels, but to provide security that would allow people to return to their homes.
"The LRA have killed our people, and they took two of my children," said Karina Zeferino, who fled after attacks in August on her hometown of Ezo, close to Sudan’s border with CAR.
She trekked the 155km to Yambio town with her remaining young daughter.
After the attacks, peacekeepers airlifted UN staff and aid workers from Ezo by helicopter, shutting down international humanitarian work in that area.
"People are suffering, but we cannot go home because the LRA will attack again," added Zeferino, holding her child tightly to her side. "There is no help for us there, so that is why we have come to Yambio, but it is hard here too."
"The LRA will remain a problem and we will be unable to go home until pressure is really put on them by all sides," said Gaaniko Bate, a leader of the ever-growing Makpandu camp in southern Sudan, which hosts some 2,530 refugees from DRC.
"These people will not be easily stopped," he added.