JIECH, SOUTH SUDAN —
Writhing in agony on the dirt floor of his hut, Bob Wol traced the recent gunshot wounds on his thigh and back with his fingers.
"I was trying to get food and my government tried to kill me," the 29-year-old told The Associated Press.
It's been almost 25 years since more than 1 million people were on the brink of starvation in southern Sudan, a crisis captured in a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a vulture poised near a starving little girl. Today, people in what was known as the "famine triangle" say the situation has only deteriorated.
"Before, only the hunger was killing you," said Lony Toang, who survived the earlier famine in Ayod County. "Now it's worse because we have hunger and we're killing people."
As South Sudan enters its fifth year of civil war, 1.25 million people are facing starvation, according to the latest analysis by the United Nations and the government. The U.N. warns that if fighting continues famine will spread to several places across the country by early next year and almost half the population of 11 million will be severely food insecure.
During a visit this month to Ayod County, the AP spoke with some who were already hungry.
In a desperate attempt to feed his wife and five small children, who hadn't eaten in days, Wol went in search of help. After six days of walking, eating fruit picked from trees, he reached government-held Ayod town, where he said soldiers wary of rebels ambushed him.
"When I got shot I was just thinking that I didn't want to die before I got food for my family," Wol said, staring despondently at the floor. "We're locked in here and we can't get out."
Ayod is one of two counties in South Sudan currently in catastrophe, with 8,000 people experiencing extreme hunger. During a visit to Ayod's rebel-held headquarters in Jiech town, dozens of residents said that without food aid they would starve to death.
Remote, barren and sealed off from the rest of the nation, the county of roughly 160,000 people in Jonglei State has been devastated by fighting.
South Sudan's army rejected people's accounts of brutality as negative propaganda by the opposition, saying it is not government policy to prevent civilians from reaching aid.
"What sense does it make for the government forces to kill its own citizens looking for food?" said Col. Domic Chol Santo, the army's acting spokesman.
Yet across South Sudan allegations are rife of both the government and the rebels using food as a weapon of war.
On a visit last month to the Equatoria region, the AP spoke with people in Yei and Lainya towns who said the army was arbitrarily detaining, raping and killing civilians trying to cultivate their fields, amid suspicions that they were part of the opposition.
Lainya resident Mary Yata said four government soldiers in September tried to steal cassava when she was tending her fields. "They said if I didn't leave now they'd kill me," she said. Days later she saw the soldiers selling her cassava at the market.
Advocacy groups are calling on the warring sides to stop holding South Sudan's people hostage.
"The civilians are caught in a deadly circle and they're certainly not being protected," said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International's senior crisis response adviser.
With nowhere to go, Ayod residents said they will continue relying on handouts by the U.N.'s World Food Program.
At a food distribution last week, the desperation was palpable as 11,000 malnourished people poured in from the surrounding bush. Some had walked overnight to receive bags of sorghum, beans and cooking oil.
Although the WFP has increased its distributions in Ayod from every 90 days to every 60 days, aid workers on the ground say the food is enough for just one month.
"I saw old people collecting grains that fell on the ground out of the bags," said Ewnetu Yohannes, team leader for Catholic Relief Services, the organization overseeing the distribution. "If WFP wasn't here it'd be a catastrophe."
Wiping breast milk from the cheek of her 10-month-old daughter, Jiech resident Elizabeth Nyakoda blamed the hunger on the years of fighting.
Unable to register in time for the aid distribution and too scared to cultivate her fields, the 35-year-old mother of five has been begging her family for food.
She rubbed her hand over her daughter's protruding rib cage as the baby began to wail. Shrugging her shoulders, Nyakoda looked away.
"When the child cries from hunger, what can I do for her?" she said. "There are no options."