As the narrow dugout canoe glides softly across the vast swamplands around Nyal, a once sleepy town in South Sudan’s Unity state, the only sound between the rhythmic plops of the paddle is silence.
But earlier this month, the swamps were alive with the cracks of gunfire, the screams of the dying and the desperate splashes of those fleeing soldiers and armed youth that forced what local officials say is tens of thousands of people to maroon themselves on islands and scavenge for survival.
“Now, we just depend on water lilies and palm tree fruits,” said William Gatkoy, who ran for his life for three hours carrying the smallest of his eight children to reach the nearest dusty patch, where around 100 people have erected dens from palm branches and pieces of cloth.
The stones of rapidly diminishing fruits litter the floor, and it takes all day digging through mush to find the black, knobbled roots of water lilies that resemble rotten potatoes. “They’re tasteless. You just eat them to save your life,” said Gatkoy, stroking the scaly arm of one of his dust-caked children suffering from the diet and from drinking water from swamps that double as toilets.
On February 7, officials say that around 1,200 soldiers and a small army of young men swarmed Panyjiar county to carry out a killing, looting and razing spree that left 60 dead and 26 wounded.
Home to over 50,000 people, it was always considered a safe haven, even during decades of civil war with Sudan that ended in 2005 and led to the birth of South Sudan in 2011. But a power struggle between leaders hundreds of kilometres (miles) away in the new nation’s capital Juba in mid-December revived old ethnic tensions between South Sudan’s largest Dinka tribe and secondary Nuer tribe, then poisoned a shallow well of unity, leaving villagers behind enemy and tribal lines. In Panyjiar, an overwhelmingly Nuer area bordered by a Dinka majority, the only place to hide is the swamp.
“Our problem here is the government. That’s why we’re afraid,” said Simon Kuol, a local representative for the state-run Relief and Rehabilitation Commission.
From the air, the circles of ash and black lines snaking around villages appear to show a scorched earth campaign, with even UN buildings in the county capital Panyjiar collapsing in on themselves.
“There were police uniforms, army uniforms and some with civilian clothes,” says William Ter, one of nine gunshot wounded patients admitted to Nyal’s only clinic run by Sign of Hope (SoH), a small German charity.
The hard lumps on his leg from the shrapnel make an already elderly man shuffle, but the iodine soaked cloth rested on a seeping wound where a chunk of hand should be makes him suck in the stale air and wince with his good eye.
But Ter says his physical suffering is nothing compared to the pain of losing a life’s work. “They took all my cows and burnt my house,” he said. “I have nothing. I can’t do anything now.” And helping even those who are not stuck on islands will be difficult. Benjamin Bangoang, who ran SoH’s dispensary in Kanynhial, about 10 kilometers (six miles) from Nhial, fled to the swamps with his family. After seeing six people shot dead, including two women running near him in the swamps, he hid for days in the dark bog.
Compelled back to help the wounded, he returned to find only smouldering ruins and bodies. “They came and shot guns around the village and they killed people. Even the drugs that are usually kept with me, they burnt them,” Bangoang said.
Peace talks being held in Ethiopia have provided little reprieve from atrocities sweeping silently through villages. In major towns decimated several times by opposing forces, a handful of anonymous aid workers speak of mass rape and killings. Some have watched executions just metres (yards) outside United Nations bases, where tens of thousands of people are hiding from soldiers and militiamen hunting house to house for the ethnic rivals. Others have been hacked to death inside these refuges, as former neighbours and colleagues turned on one another.
In Panyjiar, which was devastated by floods last year, the increasingly brutal tribal conflict has left Gatkoy and many others high and dry: desperate not to become involved but hoping the ethnic tides will soon allow them back to shore.
There are major fears of a major outbreak of pneumonia and malaria, as well as the diarrhoeal diseases already affecting many stick-legged but heavily paunched children.
Despite the pain of seeing his children waste away, Gatkoy is determined to stay for at least two months, when the rains come, and only if he has stockpiled enough black roots to see the family through the next six months.
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