Civilians trapped by conflict in South Sudan's Leer County of former Unity State, one of the areas hit by famine, say they have survived on water lilies and other wild fruits for the last three years. Aid agencies say they have not had access to the area for several months, but have since been able to reach the area since late February and have been air dropping food to the area. The villagers say they cannot farm the land due to sporadic military attacks.
A community mobilizer assembled thousands of people who stood in a long line at the Thonyor registration center to register with the World Food Program and UNICEF for relief aid.
Last week, U.N. agencies declared famine in Leer County.
Thirty-two-year-old Ray Ngwen Chek, a father of eight, said continued fighting between government and rebel forces has caused the famine.
"The war is the one which destroys all things here. You see now there is no crop. We planted nothing and we have no food. You see here all the children; they are in the sun, crying due to the famine in this area," Chek said.
Life in Leer is a daily struggle. Government forces have been battling former First Vice President Riek Machar's rebels ever since fighting broke out in South Sudan in late 2013. Villagers fled their homes and sought refuge in the bush and swamps.
Many homes were burned to the ground. Entire villages have been deserted.
People become ‘wild animals’
Being a rebel-controlled area, there is no sign of government services in Leer schools, and health care facilities are abandoned. Aid agency officials say they have been unable to access the area due to insecurity, and they accuse government forces of repeatedly preventing access.
A majority of Leer's residents are pastoralists. A few farmers or fishermen also remain. But Chek said due to the conflict, all remaining residents resort to collecting wild plants or catching fish to survive.
"For survival, sometimes you go to the river to collect water lilies. … There is no alternative at all. That is the life and, as you can see now, the people, they look like wild animals," Chek said.
Forty-five-year-old Bol Mol, another Leer resident, used to be a government security officer who worked for an oil company before the war. Mol, who is now jobless, said he hunts wild animals for food.
"Our traditional system is people eat twice a day, morning and evening. And in a situation like this one, if people get food, if you eat [once] in the evening, then tomorrow you will eat," Mol said.
‘We don’t have anything’
Brigadier General Mawin Nyial Pal is the Leer County Commissioner. He said there is nothing left there.
"The civilians' cattle, goats and houses here were all burned down. Even churches, schools and clinics were burned down. We don't have anything. There's nothing good in this area. Civilians are tired; they are dying of hunger, no food, no cattle," Pal said.
U.N. agencies said last week at least 100,000 people are affected by famine and have no access to humanitarian services. They warn the situation is likely to worsen unless agencies and the government take immediate measures to address the famine.
George Fomyien, the WFP spokesperson in South Sudan, says insecurity and government blockades have hindered operations of aid agencies, which could have averted famine in the county.
"The biggest issue has been insecurity in some of these areas which makes it difficult to access. We have heard from people in this community that they have been constantly under attack, that homes have been burnt, and so people flee," Fomyien said.
The U.N. calls it a man-made famine. Aid officials say 4.9 million people, or nearly half of the population of South Sudan, urgently needs food aid.