“This is the first time I’ve come to get food,” says Myakong Mar. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to get killed along the way.”
Having emerged from South Sudan’s swamps after months in hiding, the 42-year-old mother of four sifts her frail fingers through the grains of sorghum. Tonight, she can feed her family something other than water lilies.
Three months ago when renewed clashes erupted between government and opposition forces in the town of Padeah in Unity State, Mar fled into the nearby bush. Terrified to emerge, for fear of being killed by government troops, she and her children have been subsisting on whatever they’re able to fish out of the waters.
Only after her 5-year-old son was taken to a hospital for malnutrition did she decide it was time to leave. After walking for two hours in chest-deep waters back to her hometown, she waited in line to receive the food being distributed by the World Food Program.
But once she gets her rations, Mar said, she’ll go back to the swamps.
Her home county, Leer, has been one of the worst affected areas since South Sudan’s civil war broke out three years ago. To add to the hardships, the United Nations and South Sudan’s government last month declared a famine in Leer and Mayendit counties. Authorities say about 100,000 people there face starvation, with 15,300 of them in Padeah town alone.
Yet even though people are starving, many from Padeah still prefer live in the bush for their safety.
“The government soldiers come and they kill us and steal our food,” said John Chol, who lives just outside of Padeah. He said people would rather live in the swamps than risk being attacked or raped.
Lulu Yurdio’s family escaped to the river several months ago. A ripped shirt hung over the 12-year-old’s tiny frame. It had been five days since he last ate.