The capital of South Sudan's biggest state lay in ruins on Sunday after suffering the heaviest fighting of the civil war and changing hands four times in as many weeks. After days of bombardment by tanks, artillery and helicopter gunships, the government won a crucial victory by wresting Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, from rebel forces. But the cost of this offensive became clear when outside observers were able to reach Bor yesterday.
The town of 25,000 people on the banks of the White Nile has been looted and largely destroyed, with almost every shop broken into and ransacked. Bodies lie in the streets and large areas have been razed by the fighting. Aerial photographs show that entire blocks have been levelled. Most of Bor's citizens have fled their homes, leaving the town empty and desolate.
The refugees either crossed the White Nile and slept in the open air around the town of Minkamen, or they sought safety inside the United Nations base at Bor airport. Among those who chose the latter option were 163 children from Bor orphanage, aged between four and 15. Their fate was unclear yesterday. Manfred Taege, who taught at John Garang Memorial University in Bor until fleeing the fighting last month, had been able to send money to buy food for the orphans. But the collapse of the town's mobile phone network has deprived him of any contact with the children since January 8.
"There is no telephone contact with the entire region," said Mr Taege, who is in the national capital, Juba. "The orphans are certainly still in the UN camp - there is nowhere else for them to go. But I've had no contact for 11 days." Some 7,000 people crowded inside the UN base in Bor. Now that the city has fallen to the government, there are hopes they will be able go home. But many of the refugees are from the Nuer tribe of Riek Machar, the former vice-president turned rebel leader. With the government back in control of Bor, some may actually feel less safe. Their homes may also have been looted or destroyed, they may have little to return to.
The loss of Bor marks the biggest defeat for Mr Machar since the civil war began last month. His forces no longer control any state capitals, which could give him an incentive to agree a ceasefire at peace talks in Ethiopia before his military position deteriorates further.
An African diplomat involved in the mediation effort said that a ceasefire was now "likely", but a genuine peace agreement remained a distant prospect. "I know them very well," he said. "I know that only sustained international pressure - not just from the region but from the US, the UK and other powers - will make them talk seriously. That is the message that must go out: international pressure is key."