Middle East

'I'm always hungry:' South Sudanese face war, now famine

  • In this photo taken Wednesday, March 1, 2017, women sit in line on the ground waiting to receive food distributed by the World Food Program (WFP) in Padeah, South Sudan. South Sudanese who fled famine and fighting in Leer county emerged from South Sudan's swamps after months in hiding to receive food aid being distributed by the World Food Program. (AP Photo/Sam Mednick)

    In this photo taken Wednesday, March 1, 2017, women sit in line on the ground waiting to receive food distributed by the World Food Program (WFP) in Padeah, South Sudan. South Sudanese who fled famine and fighting in Leer county emerged from South Sudan's swamps after months in hiding to receive food aid being distributed by the World Food Program. (AP Photo/Sam Mednick)  (The Associated Press)

  • In this photo taken Wednesday, March 1, 2017, bags of food dropped by air from a World Food Program (WFP) plane are sorted in Padeah, South Sudan. South Sudanese who fled famine and fighting in Leer county emerged from South Sudan's swamps after months in hiding to receive food aid being distributed by the World Food Program. (AP Photo/Sam Mednick)

    In this photo taken Wednesday, March 1, 2017, bags of food dropped by air from a World Food Program (WFP) plane are sorted in Padeah, South Sudan. South Sudanese who fled famine and fighting in Leer county emerged from South Sudan's swamps after months in hiding to receive food aid being distributed by the World Food Program. (AP Photo/Sam Mednick)  (The Associated Press)

  • In this photo taken Wednesday, March 1, 2017, women carry away food aid distributed by the World Food Program (WFP) back to their families, in Padeah, South Sudan. South Sudanese who fled famine and fighting in Leer county emerged from South Sudan's swamps after months in hiding to receive food aid being distributed by the World Food Program. (AP Photo/Sam Mednick)

    In this photo taken Wednesday, March 1, 2017, women carry away food aid distributed by the World Food Program (WFP) back to their families, in Padeah, South Sudan. South Sudanese who fled famine and fighting in Leer county emerged from South Sudan's swamps after months in hiding to receive food aid being distributed by the World Food Program. (AP Photo/Sam Mednick)  (The Associated Press)

"This is the first time I've come to get food," says Myakong Mar. "I wasn't sure if I was going to get killed along the way."

Having emerged from South Sudan's swamps after months in hiding, the 42-year-old mother of four sifts her frail fingers through the grains of sorghum. Tonight, she can feed her family something other than water lilies.

Three months ago when renewed clashes erupted between government and opposition forces in the town of Padeah in Unity State, Mar fled into the nearby bush. Terrified to emerge, for fear of being killed by government troops, she and her children have been subsisting on whatever they're able to fish out of the waters.

Only after her 5-year-old son was taken to a hospital for malnutrition did she decide it was time to leave. After walking for two hours in chest-deep waters back to her hometown, she waited in line to receive the food being distributed by the World Food Program.

But once she gets her rations, Mar said, she'll go back to the swamps.

Her home county, Leer, has been one of the worst affected areas since South Sudan's civil war broke out three years ago. To add to the hardships, the United Nations and South Sudan's government last month declared a famine in Leer and Mayendit counties. Authorities say about 100,000 people there face starvation, with 15,300 of them in Padeah town alone.

Yet even though people are starving, many from Padeah still prefer live in the bush for their safety.

"The government soldiers come and they kill us and steal our food," said John Chol, who lives just outside of Padeah. He said people would rather live in the swamps than risk being attacked or raped.

Lulu Yurdio's family escaped to the river several months ago. A ripped shirt hung over the 12-year-old's tiny frame. It had been five days since he last ate.

"I'm hungry," he said, his eyes full of pain. "I never have food and I'm always hungry." Tasked with picking up rations for his two siblings and parents, he had walked two-and half hours to reach WFP's food distribution site. He said his family was afraid to come out.

But government officials in Leer said the "big guns" are now gone from the area and things are stable.

"People can move where they want," said Marco Wictia, commissioner of Dhorwang County. "You can see for yourself."

On Wednesday, the U.N. said efforts in response to the famine had so far delivered food to nearly 114,000 people, with more food distributions planned in the days ahead. Local women walked away with bulging white sacks of food nearly as tall as themselves, balancing them on their heads.

On his first visit to the famine area on Wednesday, the humanitarian coordinator for the U.N. mission in South Sudan, Eugene Owusu, appealed to both the community of Padeah and government officials to work together so they can start rebuilding their lives.

"We can play a role in helping," Owusu said. "But we can't stop the fighting. People need to come back home."

Padeah's broken community, however, remains wary after years of conflict.

"If you come out you'll get killed," Mar said. She took her food and returned to the bush.