KOK ISLAND, South Sudan (AP) — Eight years ago Turuk Gatluak settled on Kok Island, a remote marshland in the vast swamps of South Sudan's Unity state. He planted palm trees to hold the soil together and grew enough maize, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes to feed his wife and three children.
Now South Sudan's civil war has turned Gatluak's home into a place of misery. Since July, hundreds of terrified civilians have crowded onto Kok, seeking safety amid the violence that persists despite a peace agreement signed in August.
On Kok Island, dozens of tents jut from the ground instead of crops. About 90 families, up to 900 people, are packed onto the island which is smaller than a football field. Those who cannot fit underneath the many tarps sleep under mosquito nets in the open.
"I told them to stay here with me and if we have to die of hunger, we die of hunger together," Gatluak told The Associated Press recently. "Why should I live alone when people are dying outside?"
Fighting in Leer County, birthplace of rebel leader Riek Machar, has caused some 20,000 people to flee the county since late August, according to aid groups. Kok Island is in Leer County but is the furthest island from the mainland and is protected by miles of swamp.
Many here said they fled their homes because of attacks by government soldiers and loyalist militia. They said soldiers chased civilians into swamps then sprayed bullets into the reeds where people tried to hide.
Nyawai Tap recounted how she fled to Kok after government forces killed her husband's three brothers and raped her sister and mother at gunpoint. Soldiers abducted nine girls from her village and took them to Rier, a government army garrison town in Koch County to the north, where they were raped or given to men as wives, she said, citing five people who later escaped.
A recent report by the South Sudan NGO Forum said that at least 1,000 civilians were killed, 1,300 women and girls raped, and 1,600 women and children abducted in Leer and two neighboring counties between April and September. The U.N. and organizations have noted widespread abuses in South Sudan and have called for independent investigations.
Kok Island smells of urine, feces and rotting fish as people have nowhere to relieve themselves or dispose of waste except near their tents or in the water where they also wash and collect drinking water.
People eat water lilies, fish, and hippo meat to survive. Merchants selling WFP grain have started arriving by canoe from Nyal, a town days by canoe to the south where aid agencies deliver relief food. Aid groups have visited Kok only a few times this year and evacuated Leer County earlier this month due to the renewed fighting.
Ten people have died from disease here since July as well as four who were shot when government troops attacked the island, Gatluak said. The dead were buried alongside the tents.
"We are like an anthill if you compare to the population," said John Yoak, an elder sitting by one of the many smoky campfires which light up the island at night. "There is sickness here and hunger. There are mosquitoes, but we have no way to go out."
Many at Kok can't afford the $20 cost of a canoe ride to Nyal, a better place of refuge.
Three UN agencies warned this week that "extreme hunger is pushing people to the brink of a catastrophe in parts of South Sudan" with 3.9 million people nationwide facing severe food insecurity." The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, UNICEF and the World Food Program called on warring parties to grant unrestricted access to Unity state, where "at least 30,000 people are living in extreme conditions and are facing starvation and death."
Tens of thousands of people have been killed and more than 2 million have been displaced since fighting broke out in 2013 between President Salva Kiir's forces and those loyal to Machar. Kiir is mainly supported by the Dinka group and Machar's followers are Nuer, though most of the fighting in Unity state is between rival Nuer clans.
Kok Island farmer Gatluak said he will continue sheltering those who arrive at the outcropping until the war ends.
"These are my people," he said. "They have to live."