Leer, South Sudan – Civilians in one of South Sudan’s most desperate regions accuse their government of indiscriminate killings in recent months, forcing thousands to flee to swamp islands for safety where there is little medicine or food.
Leer county in war-torn Unity state is the birthplace of South Sudan’s rebel leader Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer, whose forces have battled those of President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, since December 2013. But the situation in Nuer-majority Unity is complicated by the split in Nuer loyalties. The fighting is largely between Nuer factions loyal to the government and rebel counterparts.
Fighting in Leer has been so intense that aid groups evacuated their staff twice this year. Most recently, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and the International Committee of the Red Cross evacuated in the first week of October as fighting raged, despite an August peace deal signed by Kiir and Machar.
Last week, clashes erupted again.
No journalists had reached Leer county since May. Al Jazeera gained rare access to the rebel-held area during a window of calm between the October clashes, travelling through swamps for days to reach civilians living within earshot of the front lines.
On the island of Tuoch Riak, hundreds of families stayed under tarpaulins in the forests. They told of government soldiers and their allies hunting down civilians who fled into the marshes to escape attacks.
“In Tuoch Riak they are killing even children,” said Martha Nyamai, a mother who is taking care of nine relatives.
“They would shoot into the papyrus,” she said, showing scars on her legs from running through the sharp marsh grasses. “When they shoot, you dive under water then breathe just through your nose and mouth.”
Nyamai described a five-day stretch in August when government forces and their allies attacked the island every day. She said she hid in stands of tall grass with her children from dawn until dusk, holding their heads below the water whenever the shooting began.
During one of these episodes, a bullet struck a woman hiding two metres from her.
On the islands and mainland of Leer county, rows of torched structures stretched for kilometres. Locals said these were burned in government attacks. The remains of a church stood in the village of Thonyoor with white crosses painted on its charred walls.
Survivors described a scene of chaos that has spread since May. They told of government forces – equipped at times with tanks, Land Cruisers, and armoured vehicles – raiding village after village, killing civilians, raping and abducting women and girls, and looting cattle, the source of livelihood in the area.
Government troops were joined by loyal Nuer militias from the Bul and Jaggey clans further north, survivors said.
The government launched an offensive through southern Unity state in April, heavily reliant on irregular militia and rife with reports of human rights abuses, according to the United Nations and Human Rights Watch.
At least 1,000 civilians were killed, 1,300 women and girls raped, and 1,600 women and girls abducted in Leer and two other counties in southern Unity between April and September, according to Protection Cluster, a consortium of 60 aid groups who specialise in civilian protection in South Sudan.
Rebel officials in Leer provided Al Jazeera with a list of 262 names of people allegedly killed by government forces since May, including a one-year-old baby and a 95-year-old man. The tally did not include deaths from the most recent fighting.
On October 2, rebels briefly took control of Leer town before being pushed out later in the afternoon. The government then launched reprisal attacks throughout the county over the following days and weeks.
Eighty civilians – including 57 children, 29 of whom drowned while fleeing – were killed in attacks in Leer county between October 4-22, according to Protection Cluster.
The Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a regional group mandated to monitor the ceasefire, accused the government of instigating the rebel attack on Leer by sending troops to steal cattle and crops.
Dozens more were killed when government troops attacked numerous villages on September 24, according to the county’s top rebel official, Kuong Kuony, and another corroborating source in the county, speaking by satellite phone after Al Jazeera’s visit.
The United Nations Mission in South Sudan, which is mandated to protect civilians, was absent from Leer during last month’s fighting, only managing to get a patrol in between October 15-18 when fighting paused, according to UNMISS spokeswoman Ariane Quentier.
Lam Tungwar Kueigwong, a minister in the state government, told Al Jazeera in Juba that claims of government attacks, including rape and abduction, “are total lies and baseless”.
He instead accused rebels of launching attacks on government positions throughout the state, including on Leer town, and displacing civilians.
Violence has forced the area to the brink of famine as cows, a source of milk which is a staple food source, were stolen and many fields went unsown.
Nyaluak Lam Gaw Gaw Kang, also living on Tuoch Riak, said her husband was killed and soldiers stole all her cows. She told Al Jazeera she is unable to find food for her children every day.
“They’ll just look at me when I’m not getting food,” Kang said. “I feel bad, but if I have nowhere to get something, what do I do?”
A report by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification System released in October said Leer was one of four counties in Unity state where people are experiencing “catastrophe”, or famine conditions.
In the swamps, people say they have been surviving by eating the bulbs of wild water lilies, catching fish, and hunting hippos. Food aid has also been smuggled into Leer from Nyal and sold. Some people have managed to grow food in small gardens despite the violence.
But in the drier and more inaccessible mainland areas, people are running out of coping mechanisms, said Vanessa Crammond, a doctor with MSF who visited rural Leer county in September before aid groups evacuated.
“In the week before we left, we screened over 300 children and we saw out of that 49 of them had [severe acute malnutrition],” she told Al Jazeera. “Without intervention those children die, I feel sadly confident to say.”
Faced with war and hunger, about 20,000 civilians have fled Leer county since the peace deal was signed in August. Most took the days-long journey south through the swamps to Nyal, a town in a more stable county where food aid is delivered.
Others headed north crossing the front lines to reach a UN base in the town of Bentiu where food is delivered, or braved the wide Nile river to the east to reach comparatively stable Jonglei state.
Not everyone can get out.
A canoe ride to Nyal costs $20 per person, beyond the reach of displaced families with up to 10 members. In previous months, humanitarian organisations paid for canoes to transport dozens of people, but that effort has since halted.
Many of those left behind are sheltering on small islands in the marshes, hoping the soldiers won’t penetrate the deep waters and malarial swamps. One of these islands, called Kok, is smaller than a football pitch but it’s home to some 90 families living under tarps and mosquitoes nets perched in the mud.
On Kok, there is danger of disease in the overcrowded environment with a lack of medicine, clean water, and mosquito nets. Ten people have already died of disease here since July.
There is little space to sleep, much less go to the bathroom. The island’s muddy edge is ringed with piles of feces. Small wounds fester and turn septic in this unsanitary environment. Women give birth in their tents with no trained attendants.
“People are defecating very near, the flies land on it and come here to the food. The feces flow into the river and people drink from there,” Tabitha Nyapa told Al Jazeera. “Even cholera can break out here. There are no drugs.”
Even so it’s better than the places they have left behind. Nyapa said she was almost killed on the mainland by fighters she claims were from Jaggey.
“They caught me with some other old women and said, ‘Show me where the soldiers are or we will rape you or burn you alive,'” she said.
“The other women said, ‘We won’t show you’ and they burned them in one hut,” she continued, listing the names of the dead.
Nyapa said she escaped when soldiers spotted a group of teenage girls and chased after them instead, then made her way to Kok.
Even Kok is at risk of attack. The government came there once before, killing four, according to the island’s elder, Turuk Gatluak. Just weeks ago, government forces breached Luth island, less than two hours away from Kok, before withdrawing.
As the war continues, the precarious existence in the swamps becomes less and less tenable.
“We want peace,” said Nyamai, who spoke of hiding her children under water while bullets rained down around them. “All other things come after peace.”