THONYOR, South Sudan – “I went only with my fear,” said Gatluok Chuol. “If the soldiers found me, they would have killed me.”
For several months last year, the 65-year-old South Sudanese farmer risked his life in order to feed his family.
In July, when fighting erupted between South Sudan’s government and opposition forces close to his village in the town of Leer, Chuol, his wife and their 10 children, fled to the swamps in search of refuge.
However, Chuol was unwilling to abandon his crops. He’d been cultivating sorghum and maize and without proper care his harvest would die and his family would starve.
Guided by the moon and shielded by darkness, Chuol and his wife crept back to their farm at 3 a.m. and secretly tended their crops. Almost nightly, the couple evaded soldiers to toil in the shadows, he said. They cut weeds until the sun rose when they were forced to disappear back into the bush.
When renewed clashes broke out in October, Chuol said soldiers attacked his village. They burned down his house and stole his recently harvested food.
“It was so painful,” he said. “We cultivated it with our own hands and they took everything.”
Shifting his body under a tree trying to avoid the sun, Chuol leaned on his walking stick. His face was worn, yet his eyes were eager as he waited in line for seeds and tools distributed by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
He’s hoping for a fresh start this year as South Sudan’s rainy season approaches, but he knows it won’t be easy.
South Sudan’s three-year civil war and economic crisis has disrupted farming so much that famine has been declared in two counties and threatens to spread. Millions of people are going hungry and thousands are at risk of starvation, say aid officials.
Leer is one of two counties in South Sudan’s Unity state where famine was declared in February and it’s also on the frontline of the war. The combination of instability and severe food insecurity has caused thousands of people to flee their homes and they are unable to grow their own food, according to aid organizations. In 2013 Unity state’s traditional sector produced 26,000 ton of cereals which by 2016 had dropped to 9,000 tons, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization.
“When fighting erupts, people just keep being pushed out into the swamps,” said Scott Doucet, an ICRC official in South Sudan.
Leer and Thonyor were once populous hubs but are now desolate ghost towns. Overturned cars and derelict buildings line Leer’s main road. Today Leer is mostly inhabited by government troops and Thonyor has only a handful of residents.
This week, the ICRC distributed seeds and tools to 30,000 people in Leer and the surrounding areas. The aim is to provide 54,000 individuals in Unity State with seeds for okra, maize and kodra grain as well as axes and hoes, so they can grow their own crops, and nets to catch some fish.
“The longterm solution isn’t dropping food from the sky,” said Doucet. Although he admitted that due to repeated fighting, realistically it will take years before people stop relying on food drops.
“Humanitarian assistance alone is never going to be enough for the people of South Sudan,” said George Fominyen, spokesman for the World Food Program in South Sudan. “What you need is a situation where people feel safe enough that they can go ahead with their lives and take care of themselves.”
“We didn’t grow anything last year,” said Nyayok Dhol. “Our farm has become a bush.”
During the summer, when government forces ransacked Dhol’s town of Thonyor and lit her house on fire, the 29-year-old seized her five children — including her two-week-old infant — and escaped to the swamps.
“I grabbed the kids who could run by the hand and carried the others and left behind everything,” she said.
Before fighting broke out, Dhol and her husband had a successful farm. Unable to maintain it when they lived in hiding, she said last year’s harvest was a complete write-off.
After five months of feeding her small children water lilies and roots of grass, Dhol decided to return home and try to rebuild her family’s life.
“I still get scared when I see people in uniform,” she said. “But I want time to cultivate my land.” As soon as she gets her bag of seeds and tools, she said she’ll start planting “the very next day.”
However, if fighting breaks out again, Dhol said she will have to move her family back into the swamps.