White tented structures housing the 18,000 civilians seeking protection from the ongoing violence in the town of Malakal blanket the base of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). Fighting erupted in Malakal, a strategic provincial capital of the oil-rich Upper Nile State near the end of December and has continued in surges since, with the town flipping multiple times between government and opposition control.
Kuany John, a teacher from Malakal, waits with his wife, Regina, as their possessions are searched for weapons by UNMISS security officers at the base entrance. They are returning after making preparations to travel north to the town of Renk the following day.
Bor, right, combs Regina's hair as Regina tells her son, Anuen to get ready to leave for the bus. "We are staying like small children here [in UNMISS]. It is no life," laments Kuany, "There is no food and when the rains come it will be more bad and the roads will become very bad. We must go now before we are trapped."
Anuen looks back down the road as his sister, Akon, carries him to the bus waiting outside the UNMISS base.
Passengers traveling to the northern town of Renk board the bus outside the UNMISS base while others load belongings on the roof. According to official UNMISS numbers, over 3,400 people have left the UNMISS base in the three weeks between March 26th and April 16th, with many taking advantage of the current break in fighting in order to get to safer towns and better living conditions before seasonal rains wash the roads away entirely.
A boy pushes a wheelbarrow past the fully-loaded bus.
Passengers look out the windows as the bus departs Malakal.
Destroyed homes line the road heading out of town.
Kuany and his five year-old daughter Adut sit in the bus and watch out the window as Malakal slowly fades from view. "Renk is safe," Kuany soberly explains when asked why he is moving his family there, "The fighting will start again here soon and there is no reason to stay. They broke my house and burned everything. We have nothing now"
Women and children pick through the surrounding forest for a small, bitter fruit. Few on the bus have any food or water and daytime temperatures hover between 90 and 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
Passengers wait on the side of the road as the sun sets. The bus driver hitched a ride three hours back down the road to Malakal to find a spare part, leaving everyone stranded on the road until his return.
Stranded passengers raise their hands in frustration as a lorry carrying SPLA soldiers and furniture from Malakal town drives past without stopping. "It is from our homes," lamented a passenger referring to the goods in the truck, "they are taking from our homes."
Regina carries Anuen and walks with Adut and Akon along the road after the sun sets. "I must return them [his children] to school," worries Kuany, "if they are having no school there will be nothing for them." According to the World Bank 73% of those 15 years-old and older are illerate, a figure that rises to 84% for women.
A sick passenger rests in the road. "There are children and some are old and sick, but we are having no food or water," worries Kuany, "tomorrow is long if the driver does not return."
Children lay asleep, curled up together on the roadside as the sun rises the following morning.
Kuany washes Adut's face after waking and ensures she drinks some water. "As Southerners we are not thinking about the future," says Kuany when speaking about the ongoing conflict, "people like money and nice buildings too much and they want to get them in one time, but you cannot do this at once and not cause suffering."
Regina sits with Anuen, Adut and two other children from the bus as they chew on some of the small, bitter fruits found in the forest.
Adut holds onto the bus chassis, too thirsty and hungry to sleep.
A young girl checks to see if there is any water remaining in a jerry can. Water has all but run out by afternoon and many have not eaten since the morning before.
Passengers start off walking towards the nearest village, Akoka, as a truck carrying furniture from Malakal drives past. Akoka is roughly a four-hour walk, but without food or water people are left without any other option but to go.
Like a life raft of shade, elderly women cling to the side of the truck and rest before setting out towards Akoka.
Regina leads the way to Akoka as Bor carries Adut and Akon carries Anuen. Kuany delays his departure in order to organize a small amount of water for those too sick to make the journey.
Adut and Kuany cling to each other once Kuany catches up to the family. After arriving in Renk he will leave them at a relatives and make his way to Juba in the hopes of finding work. "I have four months without salary," he says referring to the time when schools shut at the start of the conflict, "but I must support my family. With a salary I will send them to Kampala. The important thing is there is basic learning for my children."
Bor drinks from the last of the water as she and others rest along the road for a moment.
Fires from a few homes in Akoka scatter the horizon as people walk the last stretch to the village.
Akon, Bor, and Adut lie asleep on the side of the road the following morning, tucked together under their mother's sari.
Kuany helps others remount the tire of the bus as a woman lifts a sick passenger out from under it. Kuany jumped on a passing truck in Akoka to bring food and water back to those who were too sick or old to make the trek to Akoka.
A blind and crippled woman is helped into the bus after the driver returned with the needed part and repaired the bus.
The bus drives on into the night.
Still driving late into the night, passengers rest outside the bus as the engine cools and water is added to the radiator.
Regina, Anuen, and Adut dig into a bowl of beans and bread at a small village along the road to Renk the following day. Only a few hours from Renk, it is their first real meal since leaving Malakal three days before.
Akon watches TV with her family in her relatives' home after finally arriving in Renk. With 24-hour citywide electricity and relative security - both uncommon characteristics to many towns in South Sudan (including the capital), Regina and her children will stay in Renk until Kuany is able to get them to Kampala.
Kuany walks through Renk to arrange plans for getting to Juba. "There is no reason to be in Malakal now," he reflects, "even the basic thing of life we lost in clashes there. Maybe I will return there some day...even if there is security it will be maybe 15 years before we can all live there together again. I have actually said goodbye to that home."