2 July 2014
Last updated at 19:00 ET
Thousands of people have used South Sudan’s River Nile to escape fighting that has divided communities across the world’s newest nation in the last six months. What began as a political squabble has escalated into ethnic violence. Nearly 1.5 million people have now fled their homes and their fields, leading to warnings of a widespread famine.
As the warring factions try to hammer out a way forward under regional mediation, many families arriving in host communities – like here in Melut, Upper Nile State – find themselves destitute, without belongings or a means of making money. It is estimated that a third of the population needs food assistance.
A person's wealth in South Sudan tends to be measured by the size of their cattle herd – but many have been forced to leave behind their precious livestock. They arrive in communities where local families are already stretched. These cattle owners in Melut are burning dung in an attempt to ward off insects that carry disease.
Both government forces and an alliance of rebels have been accused of committing atrocities. Many families around the country have taken refuge at camps protected by UN peacekeepers. In April a camp in Bor, where people from the Nuer community were staying, was attacked by armed youths. Ten-year-old Bothbeit was shot three times in the head and miraculously survived the ordeal.
Following the attack, women in the cramped and squalid camp were not allowed to venture outside to gather wood, which meant there was no fuel to cook the food that was being distributed. Six weeks later, the gates were opened for an hour to allow women to fetch as much wood as possible from designated areas.
Bor has changed hands several times. Many people have fled cross over the Nile to Mingkaman, where international charity Oxfam is helping those in informal camps. Although this area is relatively safe, resources are scarce for the 85,000 incomers, who mainly come from the Dinka community.
Elizabeth Akuol and her five children live in a shared tent with 20 other people in Mingkaman. “We had to run away because of fighting. The rebels were chasing us so we had to hide in the swamp for five days. It was a terrifying time," she says. "I was heavily pregnant. I think the worry made me give birth. My husband acted as the midwife. He was beside me the whole time and was very worried. I delivered our son before the morning... we called him Swampy to remember that night.”
But a week after getting to Mingkaman, Mrs Akuol's husband went back to Bor to fetch supplies from their home and was killed. "As soon as I heard that my husband had died I fell sick with worry as I didn’t know how I was going to care for our children. We don’t have enough food, just a small amount of grain, which isn’t ground. Having it ground costs money, otherwise I have to do it myself. But I have no energy at all, as I’m psychologically tortured from losing my husband."
With so many people away from their homes and unable to plant their crops, there is a fear that the food crisis will get worse. The River Nile is a source of food for both locals and those who have newly arrived in Mingkaman. Oxfam is planning to distribute fishing equipment to displaced families to help supplement their diet.
Pooch Mangyak is one of many local fishermen in Mingkamen. "Our fish is to eat not sell,” he says. “We eat whatever we catch but it's never enough to survive. We have to suffer and be hungry as we have no other option."
Six months into the crisis and the humanitarian situation is deteriorating rapidly. Eighteen-year-old Stima Rose, who was orphaned at the age of five, lives in the capital, Juba, where a cholera outbreak has killed more than 30 people since April. Her baby Moses has been sick with vomiting and diarrhoea, but she has not gone to a doctor. “We have no money to pay for one. Instead I have given him traditional medicine, the sap from a tree. It has helped a little but he is still not well.”
Juba is home to many poor communities. Mrs Rose’s family stays in St Mary, a settlement in a graveyard. “I’m worried about dying as my neighbour died two days ago,” says Mrs Rose, who has also been ill. <b>Gallery by Kieran Doherty for Oxfam.</b>