Cradles and baskets balanced on their heads, thousands of women and children streamed in from the bush to two outposts in the swamps of Koch county in Unity state, the heart of South Sudan’s civil war.
“I came here because at home we have nothing – no food,” said Nyapar Kueth, lining up in Koch town with hundreds of colourfully robed women to receive sacks of grain from the World Food Programme (WFP). “We have been eating the fruits from the trees.”
In August, South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, and his rival, former vice president Riek Machar, a Nuer, signed a peace agreement to end what is now 21 months of fighting. Tens of thousands have been killed in South Sudan’s civil war, which largely pits Dinka against Nuer, and more than two million have been displaced, according to the UN.
Now that there is a shaky peace deal, aid groups are trying to reestablish access to communities cut off by violence, who some fear face famine.
A convoy of aid helicopters recently brought food, medicine, and other goods to Koch county for the first time since May, when a devastating government offensive swept through the area.
Soldiers burned homes, raping and killing civilians during that campaign, according to United Nations investigators and Human Rights Watch. Thousands fled to the forests, leaving the fields, on which they depend for survival, unplanted.
The convoy visited Koch town, held by the government, and Bauw village in rebel-controlled territory. Though South Sudan’s war is largely between Dinka and Nuer soldiers, in Unity, the fighting mostly involves different clans from within the broader Nuer community against one another, particularly in recent months.
In Koch town, smiling women balanced bags of sorghum on their heads or dragged the sacks through the muddy ground behind them.
More than two million people have been displaced by South Sudan’s civil war [Jason Patinkin/Al Jazeera]
In Bauw, tired villagers quietly gathered under trees to be screened for diseases and receive plastic sheets for shelter from the UN. Many had walked for hours through the tall grass swamps.
Altogether, more than 20,000 civilians – mostly women and children – received a combined 217 metric tonnes of food during the aid delivery, according to WFP, which led the relief effort with UNICEF and other agencies.
Medical teams found malaria, acute respiratory illnesses, and diarrhoea among locals, the WFP said. More than 170 people were treated on just the first day of the operation, according to medics on the ground.