Nyal, South Sudan - John Wichtuor was fast asleep when hundreds of men broke the pre-dawn silence in the village of Nyandong, in South Sudan's Unity state, with cracks of gunfire.
With a sense of dread, Wichtuor realised that a war started between politicians faraway, in the capital Juba - which then seeped into the army and unfurled northwards to rebel strongholds - had finally permeated through the state to the last safe haven of Panyjiar county.
"When I heard the gunshots, I worried so much about my family and how to protect them," he says, recalling the panic of blindly scooping up two children and having to run out of the house, into the unknown.
"I could see the smoke of the houses, the sound of the guns, and a lot of people wailing, and I knew I had to get to the bush. There were a lot of people crying, saying they had been hurt."
Running as the bullets whizzed past, Wichtuor collapsed after shrapnel tore through his leg.
Life is too hard for us here, as we just depend on these foods. We get our water from the swamp, and go to the toilet there.
Alone and in agony, Wichtuor tried to find the strength to staunch the flow of blood and drag himself through the dirt to the trees.
"It was very hard, but I had to keep going as I knew otherwise it was death."
He spent a night in the bush before calling out to a group of people speaking his local dialect. They took him to a clinic nine hours walk away in Nyal, run by a small German charity named Sign of Hope (SoH), which has the only permanent medical presence in Panyjiar county.
In the ward, four men lay with gunshot wounds, another five have been evacuated, and about 20 others were wounded.
Local officials say at least 60 people died in a wave of attacks in early February on Panyjiar county - home to more than 50,000 people as well as 10,000 recent arrivals from neighbouring states where the conflict is raging.
Simon Kuol, county coordinator for the state-run Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, says 1,200 government soldiers and an army of youths from neighbouring Lakes state - home to the country's largest Dinka ethnic group - embarked on a campaign of killing, scorched earth, and plunder against the second-largest Nuer group.
Locals say tens of thousands have fled through the swamps to live on one of 15 empty islands, after having their homes and their faith in the army destroyed. Aid agencies have visited a couple near Nyal where hundreds are living, and estimate there are at least 6,000 in the swamps.
Al Jazeera met with about 100 people living on the closest island, a 45-minute ride by precariously shallow and leaking dugout canoes, or a three-hour wade, according to survivors scavenging for the fruits of palm trees and the black roots of water lilies buried in the sludge.
"Life is too hard for us here, as we just depend on these foods," says Nyayiel Gatluok, pulling down her Mickey Mouse nightshirt to nurse the youngest of her six children.
|At least 60 people died in a wave of attacks in early February on Panyjiar county [Reuters]
Disease is already rife, mainly because of the all-purpose swamp water.
"We get our water from the swamp and go to the toilet there," says Gatluok, whose baby is already sick and filthy from a lack of soap.
Mopping up her baby's vomit and diarrhoea with a dirty cloth, Gatluok says she knows life here is bad for her children, but after seeing her brother shot and village destroyed, she has nothing to go back for.
"When there's food, we'll go. Until then, we may as well stay here," she says.
The living conditions are those of castaways - with ragged children, bellies distended, milling about makeshift camps surrounded by palm leaves. But many are planning to stay months because of the lack of security and food on the mainland.
SoH pharmacist Benjmain Bangoang is now in Nyal, after finding his dispensary in the nearby village of Kanyhial burnt down. After seeing six men shot dead, he ran to the swamps where many others were screaming in pain for loved ones.
He managed to get his family on one of the few canoes, as the attackers that chased them to the swamps taunted and threatened their prey. "They just told us: 'Run to the bush. This place does not belong to you. We will get rid of you,'" he says.
The fighting is swamping a country that could barely stand on its own two feet before this spate of violence - which is increasingly being drawn along ethnic lines. During the decades of civil war with Sudan that ended in the secession of the south in 2011, Khartoum tried to fracture the south's huge guerrilla force by arming and pitting rival groups against one another.
|A girl eats the only food available on the swamp islands of South Sudan [Hannah McNeish/Al Jazeera]
But now, the leaders of the world's newest nation have resurrected old tribal armies, recruited youth raiding parties and unleashed them on civilian areas branded "rebel" or "government-supporting" according to ethnicity.
The roots of the current conflict go back to a feud hatched during the civil war over which direction the rebel movement should take. The leaders of the two rival factions became the country's President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and his former Vice-President Riek Machar, a Nuer.
A renewed power struggle came to a head in late December, after a series of challenges by Machar to leadership. A fight between presidential guards in late December over the attempted disarmament of Nuer soldiers led to Kiir quickly branding Machar a coup-plotting "prophet of doom".
Soldiers destroyed the vice-president's house, as tanks rolled out onto the streets. Machar escaped, but a number of his friends and relatives were killed. Uniformed men went on to decimate whole Nuer neighbourhoods, rounding up civilians to be shot or burned alive, and carrying out house-to-house executions.
Rebel leader Machar retreated back to the bush and declared war on Kiir. Forces including Nuer youth militias and sections of the army have also committed heinous abuses against the Dinka, as a cycle of revenge spins ever faster.
Many civilians from Machar's home village of Leer in Unity state fled to Panyjiar, which was completely razed, including a hospital run by emergency medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres.
Panyjiar residents say the men who attacked were all Dinka from the neighbouring Lakes state. Cross-state cattle raids were common, but now raiders are being armed and recruited by both sides to exact a revenge plotted by politicians using civilians as pawns.
"They stole 6,500 cows... they burnt down 20 villages," says Kuol from the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission.
We civilians, we don't know what's going on. It's the politicians who know what's going on in this country. We just run to the islands where we stay under the trees.
Even the county capital, Panyjiar, has been reduced to rubble and ash - the few UN buildings also damaged or barely standing.
Caught in the crossfire
Civilians here are now hemmed in, fighting between state-armed ethnic rivals turned enemies and rebels whose cause they don't understand.
"People have a problem now. Our two communities are not united. It started in Juba where people with weapons took advantage of the situation. Now, I don't know how it will end," says Wichtuor.
In another bed, Paul Gatjang sits recovering from a gunshot wound to the head and hand. Unable to sleep because of the pain, Gatjang says he has no idea why forces stormed his village of Dhiak, killing 10 people and wounding nine others.
"We civilians, we don't know what's going on. It's the politicians who know what's going on in this country. We just run to the islands where we stay under the trees."
He only survived after being found unconscious and brought to hospital, but says his life is effectively over as he cannot move one hand and has only the clothes he's wearing.
Now refugees in their own country, the only choice for tens of thousands of civilians such as Gatjang is to fight for life in the swamps, or on the battlefield. Most say they are already defeated by bewildering levels of violence that seem to have no borders.
"I have no power," says Gatjang. "I just have to stay here."
Follow Hannah McNeish on Twitter: @HannahMcNeish
Source: Al Jazeera