More than 100,000 people fled to South Sudan from Abyei, a contested, oil-rich area occupied by Sudanese troops in May 2011.
Almost a year later, they find themselves nearly destitute after missing harvests and exhausting the scant resources of local communities in the newly-independent, but impoverished south. The International Committee of the Red Cross is trying to help them rebuild their lives.
Akec Dut is one of hundreds of women pressed into patches of shade under trees bearing the bitter, prune-shaped lalop fruit in the village of Nyintar, where food is becoming increasingly scarce before the planting season.
As she gnaws on a lalop to try and stave off what has become an almost constant hunger, Dut says that her husband has been begging various relatives for a few dollars to buy grain for their five children since they fled Abyei violence 11 months ago.
“The life here in Agok is so difficult after leaving Abyei," said Dut. "Only what we are depending on now is you just go and sell your goods, when some traders come around with maize, you just go and buy, and if you have relatives you go and ask. That’s why my husband has gone to Agok; to ask some relatives to give.”
Displaced women gather to collect water from a water hole near Jamam refugee camp in South Sudan's Upper Nile State, March 10, 2012.
After seeing her crops and house burnt down and fleeing bullets “in the red light” of dawn to come here, Dut is too scared to go back to Abyei. The area was supposed to have a referendum last year on whether to join Sudan or South Sudan. But the poll never happened because of disputes over who was eligible to vote, and Sudan then took over the region by force.
Dut hopes today she will receive the tools to feed her family well and carve out a small existence in South Sudan until one day there is peace.
“If I get seeds, that’s what will make my life," she said. "Because I will cult[ivate] if I have access to harvest, so I will sell the rest and I will change my diet if possible. Now, we are only depending on the leaves of the trees and Lalop.”
While the U.N. estimates around 110,000 Dinka Ngok people ethnically linked to South Sudan came to southern villages, many residents fled for fear of violence spreading south, meaning that harvests were ruined.
Andrea Anselmi, Economic Security Delegate for the ICRC, says that only around 10 percent of Nyintar’s residents harvested anything last year.
Anselmi says survival options in these villages are limited, and the mass influx of people from Abyei has put further pressure on meager local resources.
“They are relying on the host community, so the people that stayed here and maybe had some harvest," said Anselmi. "They were fishing but at the moment the river is almost dry, they rely on wild vegetables and wild fruits, and in many places they are just collecting firewood and making charcoal to sell these things to the market.”
In Nyinatar, the ICRC is giving out tools and seeds to over 200 needy families to grow grains and vegetables, and a half ration of food for up to three weeks to give people the energy to plant and resist eating the seeds.
The scheme will help thousands more people in surrounding villages to start rebuilding their lives.
At another distribution center in the village of Abothok, local administrator Kat Kuol says that around 6,000 people arrived here from Abyei, pushing the local population to over 10,000.
He says that for now, relatives and aid agencies such as the U.N. World Food Program are filling the gap, but that resources will be strained until these people can cultivate themselves.
Back in Nyintar, Aciei Arop’s spriteliness belies her age, as she gathers large sacks of food and rigorously checks that all her seeds are there.
She says that her family has been surviving on one cup of sorghum per day, but now she will have enough to feed her five children and also sell at local markets.
"It will change my life as I’m going to cultivate, and when the outcome of what I have cultivated comes, I will get a variety of items that I will also eat at home, so that I can sell some of those things so that I can change my life," said Arop.
Sudan and South Sudan are holding talks to settle several major issues, including the route of their border and the long-term fate of Abyei. The talks have been marked by tension and lack of progress. For now, seeds and tools may be the best hope for Abyei's former residents to rebuild their lives.