Paloich, South Sudan - The cattle appeared first - a handful crossing the red dust track ahead and vanishing into thick, thorny bush.

The vehicle skidded hard then reversed into a break in the scrub and the herd swelled out of the haze. Perhaps 300 beasts, glossy with symmetrical horns a metre in length, more than 1,000 heavy hooves crushing the earth as they moved.

Three young boys trotted barefoot alongside, sticks raised. The vehicle bounced beside them until small domes of cloth tents appeared, wood-smoke rising from the emerging camp.

The settlement belonged to the Falata people and was made in the quiet bush a few kilometres outside Paloich, a parched settlement on the White Nile river in South Sudan's conflicted Upper Nile state.

The Falata are a collection of Arab tribal communities who migrated from western Africa to greater Sudan mostly in the 19th and early 20th centuries, allegedly settling on their return from a pilgrimage to Mecca.

 South Sudan peace talks?

They are nomadic Muslims who rear vast herds of cattle and today move widely across territory in Chad, southern Sudan and South Sudan's Upper Nile state, since Sudan split in two in 2011.

The total Falata population may number as many as three million.

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Seated on grass mats under the shade of low trees, paramount Chief Ahmed Omar Younis explained that his particular group of about 200 men, women and children comprise 10 distinct tribes with different dialects, but Arabic is their shared language.

They claim to have at least 60,000 cattle, but to reveal the exact number would be impolite - akin to asking someone how much money is in their bank account.

Access to these transient, private people is difficult. Chief Younis said no organisation - government or NGO - had visited them until this day.

Christian aid organisation World Vision is undertaking a mass livestock vaccination campaign in South Sudan with the goal of immunising more than 300,000 animals.

The vaccine drive is important for nomadic tribes who move regularly and can therefore spread disease between herds. Their lives revolve around their cattle, and they welcomed the initiative and invited the veterinary team into their camp.

The Falata have been caught up in violence from both government and rebel fighters of the now one-year-old civil war in South Sudan.

"They are vulnerable," Nazarene Gieth, World Vision food security and development officer, told Al Jazeera, "because nobody understands who they are or has investigated their movements. The war in this country affects them and they need help, but they need to be stable so NGOs can build a relationship with them".

Greatest needs

Chief Younis said the greatest need was to protect cattle from raids and disease, and obtaining supplies of non-food items such as tools and plastic sheeting.

Younis said last week South Sudanese rebel fighters known as the White Army attacked a sister camp near Paloich. They beat the women and boys, and slaughtered scores of cows.

Violent conflict is not the only threat facing these tribes.

Falata women live largely separate from the men in the camp. The women from Younis' group said their children's health was the most urgent problem.

Falata girls marry starting at 16 years old and can give birth to as many as 14 children. Their access to medical care is almost non-existent.

If someone falls seriously ill, the best they can do is attempt to hitch a ride with a passing oil or military truck and seek help in the town of Melut, more than an hour's rocky drive south, where there are clinics for communities displaced by war.

But the trucks seldom stop.

Khadijah Mohammed is 25. She has four children, the eldest is nine. Her youngest, a baby of three months, has been sick for weeks with vomiting, diarrhoea and fever.

Khadijah said seven children and 10 women from their group died in the last year, all with similar symptoms. The cause could be a disease outbreak or related to malnutrition, but it remains unknown until a medical assessment is done.

We know very well the water is dirty. We have heard the rumours about sickness... But we don't have another choice for water. There are no wells.

Ahmed Omar Younis, Chief of Falata 

Additionally, safe drinking water is difficult to find. Paloich hosts a major oil-drilling station run by Dar Petroleum, one of the largest companies in South Sudan.

The Falata live in its shadow and source water from pools rumoured to be contaminated by waste.

"We know very well the water is dirty. We have heard the rumours about sickness," said  Chief Younis through a translator.

"But we don't have another choice for water. There are no wells."

This reporter contacted Dar Petroleum's South Sudan offices seeking information about environmental assessments of the Paloich site, specifically potential effects on water quality in the surrounding area.

No response was received by the time of publication.

Black fever

Veterinary workers took Khadijah and her baby to a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) at one of Melut's internally displaced persons camps.

A physician suspected the child had kala azar - black fever - a disease transmitted by sandfly bites. It is the second deadliest parasitic killer in the world after malaria.

According to MSF, the number of people treated in South Sudan for kala azar more than doubled between 2013 and 2014. Malnutrition lowers the body's ability to fight the disease and no nutrition assessments on this collection of Falata has been compiled.

An outbreak of kala azar is containable but it's deadly if not treated, and could be killing the women and children.

Meanwhile, fighting continues across southern Sudan and South Sudan with attacks reported in recent days in Upper Nile and across the border in Sudan's South Kordofan region. 

What is certain is that these transient, elusive nomads require support and recognition but will keep moving to avoid clashes in an enduring search for safe places to graze their cattle.

Source: Al Jazeera