It is early evening in Awerial county, in South Sudan’s Lakes state, and as the heat of the day dies away, groups of women are making their way to the banks of the river Nile with their jerry cans to fetch the final round of water for their families.
In the setting sun, rows of them stoop to scoop out the dirty water from the muddy banks. The people I spoke to, some of the 89,000 people who fled their homes in Bor because of fighting there, all knew that this water could make them ill but they had no other choice.
I walked with 17-year-old Martha as she went to collect water for her family. She told me, “Here there is no clean drinking water and no latrines, people are using the river as toilet but we are drinking that water too because there is no other option.
“Many people are now sick from diarrhoea and typhoid because of this water.”
Exodus across the Nile
Like the other living in Awerial, Martha fled her home in Bor, on the other side of the Nile, as it became engulfed in conflict, walking for days across the swamp until she and her family reached the banks of the river and they were able to get a boat across. With no belongings, they are now living with 35 other people under a tree, begging for food from local people.
Awerial is a remote, sparsely populated area with limited healthcare and few schools. Now that the dry season has come the land is parched and dusty. However, there is an abundance of thorny trees and under each of these I saw 20 to 50 people gathered with whatever belongings they had managed to flee with or what they had been given by aid agencies.
Because of the continuous fighting around Bor more people are crossing over the river every day. The few that can afford are taking a truck onto the capital, Juba, or crossing the border into Uganda, but for others their entire savings were wiped out paying for the boat journey and so they are stuck in Awerial. As more people continue to pour across, families are walking for over an hour until they can find a tree under which they can settle.
Deng’s agonising choice
Looking around at the groups of people who are already here it doesn’t seem possible that there can be any more people on the other side of the vast, wide river, but when I spoke to the local authorities in Awerial they said they had heard reports of thousands of other people stranded on the other side.
Deng* told me of the agonising choice he had to make. With four children to carry he was unable to help two members of his extended family who are disabled and had to leave them behind.
He told me, “We left two people behind; one is very old and the other is blind so they cannot walk, but I could not carry them because I was carrying my young children.”
Right now Deng and Martha and the thousands of other displaced people in Awerial have found some safety. But every day, as more people arrive, concerns rise for the spread of disease amongst the displaced population, and the fate of the people who have not yet been able to make the journey across the river to join them.
*Name changed to protect identity