The ongoing conflict in South Sudan has claimed thousands of lives and displaced over one million people. Towns have been leveled, homes destroyed, families torn apart, and a nascent country, once optimistic for a future finally on its own terms, has been left grappling with a reality they had hoped they had left behind.
Malakal, a strategic provincial capital of the oil-rich Upper Nile State, has been the seat of intense clashes and near-constant violence since fighting erupted in Juba on December 15th, 2013. Since the first attack on Malakal by rebels in late December, the town has flipped multiple times between rebel and opposition control and is now tenuously held under the SPLA's thumb. The town itself is all but flattened and everyone who was not killed has either fled entirely or is now seeking protection on the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) base.
Over 18,000 people live within the compound's gates as of the end of April, far more than the base's capacity. Without anywhere else to go, families have been forced to camp out in the dirt, small tented structures staked up against the barb wire and drainage canals running through the base.
While myriad humanitarian agencies are operating there, conditions have been brutal, exacerbated during times of fighting when supplies from outside have been cut off. Civilians have faced food and water shortages, lack of sufficient medicine, and overflowing latrines.
Conditions will only get worse once seasonal rains descend, inundating the low lying areas in which families are camped. Aid agencies in the UNMISS base have already started administering cholera vaccinations in preparation.
"We are staying like small children here [in UNMISS]." says Kuany John, a schoolteacher from Malakal who, along with his wife and four children, fled to the UNMISS base when opposition forces took control of the town in mid-February.
Like many, Kuany decided to take his family and flee Malakal before the road out was cut off by either another counterattack from opposition forces or the six-month long rainy season.
"Everything is gone," he says of Malakal, "They broke my home and looted everything. We have nothing now."
Renk, a town far in the north along the border with Sudan, is where he and his family decided to move. Regina, his wife, has a sister living there and the town has remained relatively stable amidst the conflict raging throughout the country. "Renk is safe...We have family there and food is there in the market," explains Kuany as he sets out on his trip, "our life here (in Malakal) is finished. We must run."