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South Sudanese Seek Refuge in Swamps

Tens of thousands of people in South Sudan's Unity state have been displaced by fighting between government and rebel forces which has left countless dead and whole villages ransacked and razed. Many fled to the only refuge left: the swamps. There, people are living as castaways; scavenging for food, drinking filthy water and sleeping in the rough.

When hundreds of men came to the small village of Pathiet, shooting at random, 40-year-old Nayyiel Gatluok grabbed her six children and whatever she could carry and ran for the swamps.

Around 60 people were killed in an attack in Panyjiar county February 7 -- some were shot dead at home or as they plunged themselves into the swampy water.

Gatluok and some 100 other people are now living in dire conditions on the nearest island to Nyal -- a few hours wade from her home. Thousands of others are living on similar bits of land.

With only one mosquito net and a bed she managed to carry on her head, her family is living on the hot, dusty island with no proper shelter. Food consists of whatever falls from the few palm trees or what they can unearth from the swamps.

“Life is bad,” she said. All she has for her children is dirty water, and their only food is the roots of water lilies and palm fruits.

But she and others are determined to stay here until they are sure that what they call government troops -- along with some police and armed youth from neighboring Lakes state -- do not return to unleash more violence.

Others have said they have nothing to go back to; soldiers looted and torched their homes and stole around 6,500 cows.

South Sudan became independent in 2011, six years after the end of a 20-year civil war with Sudan. But since late December, a power struggle between the country's leaders has widened to a new war that has divided the country's communities by ethnicity.

No one thought that a fight between President Salva Kiir, who comes from the Dinka ethnic group, and his former vice president Riek Machar, from the Nuer, would ever reach the neutral villages of Panyjiar county.

For the only permanent charity here, called Sign of Hope, providing medical care is increasingly difficult. The group's director, Klaus Stieglitz, said the dispensary was burned down in the fighting and getting supplies for all the wounded is expensive.

“The challenge we are facing at the moment is access to our clinic. Road transport at the moment is practically impossible so we have to use air transport means. That is quite costly. We were facing a situation where the stocks in our clinics were very low, so we had no other choice than to fly to this place called Nyal, even though practically speaking it is lying on the frontline at the moment,” said Stieglitz.

Simon Kuol, the county coordinator for the state-run Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, is especially concerned about disease and starvation in a county whose harvests were lost last year to floods and this year to violence.

“We are fearing that they will be suffering, as they don't have mosquito nets, they don't have food, they don't have everything. The ground is ended to us here. We have no other place to go, so we must pray for God, so that he will come,” said Kuol.

Peace talks being held in Ethiopia have provided little reprieve from atrocities and tragedy sweeping silently through the villages.