By Alex Whiting
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Fighting in and around South Sudan's Leer town has disrupted the hunger-hit region's crucial planting season, and residents returning to the town urgently need food, water and medical help, aid workers said on Tuesday.
Nearly 100,000 people fled the town and surrounding areas in Unity State about two weeks ago, after hearing reports that warring forces were advancing on the area, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said.
Many hid in malaria-infested swamps several hours' walk from the town. Those who have begun trickling home told the ICRC they have little or no food and need health care. The aid agency said the needs are likely to grow fast.
"The needs are enormous, and the (aid) response has to be scaled up in the days and weeks ahead," ICRC spokesman Pawel Krzysiek said in a telephone interview from Juba.
The world's newest state, which declared independence from Sudan in 2011, was plunged into conflict nearly 18 months ago between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and rebels allied with his former deputy, Riek Machar.
The conflict in the northeastern African nation deepened ethnic faultlines between Kiir's Dinka people and Machar's largely ethnic Nuer followers.
The area's short planting season, which lasts just a few weeks, has been disrupted by the conflict.
Reports of continuing fighting mean that most of those who have returned are afraid to stay in the town at night, Krzysiek said.
"We are really risking missing the planting season. People simply don't have time for that yet, that's the biggest concern," Krzysiek said.
ICRC staff, who fled Leer with the residents, had to suspend food delivery to 120,000 people. The aid agency's compound was looted and four vehicles and furniture were stolen.
Staff were able to return on Saturday and began flying in food and other supplies on Tuesday.
Hunger in Leer county, as in many of the worst-affected areas of South Sudan, is already at crisis levels. Without food aid, it would likely have reached emergency levels - one step from famine - according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network.
John Jal Riak, 23, who slept in the "tall grass" eight hours' walk from Leer, survived on water lilies and coconuts. "The community is really suffering," he told the ICRC.
(Reporting by Alex Whiting, Editing by Tim Pearce)