When the armed men stormed into the village of Kirik in Tonj North County, Warrap state, Mathiang Deng knew there was nothing that he could do. They had guns, he did not and so when they stole his cattle and burnt his house to the ground, he had no way to stop them. In the end the armed clan left with all of the cattle in the village, wounding and killing more than 40 people in the process.
“Another clan came into our village on the way back from grazing their animals in far off pasture,” said Mathiang. “They came with guns and started to round up all our cattle and many of our goats. People were shot dead and others were badly hurt.”
Two whole villages were destroyed that day as the rival clans fought. “Some people refused to leave but there was so much shooting and we were scared, so my family and I fled. We were able to take a few goats with us but nothing else.”
“After we fled our village we moved from place to place but conflicts with other tribes forced us to keep moving. Eventually we settled in this place and have been living here in the bush outside Warrap for two months.”
Mathiang and his wife Ajak, along with their three young children
and members of their extended family have constructed a small compound
in the middle of the parched scrub land, around 10 kilometres outside
of Warrap town. They have used spiky twigs to create an enclosure to
stop their few remaining precious goats from escaping, but they have no
hut or tent, just a small shelter with no walls made from sticks and
The only possessions that the family have are a few jerry cans, two
small blankets, and a small bag of clothes hung from the branch of a
tree. There is no healthcare or education in this area, but they are
lucky that there is a borehole constructed by Islamic Relief not far
away. But fights at this water point are becoming increasingly common
as more and more people arrive in the area desperately searching for
The land around Mathiang’s temporary home is dry and dusty after a
year with no rain. With no pasture he is feeding his goats small seeds
and nuts but they are rapidly weakening. “All my animals are dying, one
died yesterday and another this morning,” Mathiang said. “In just a few
weeks all of the goats will have gone.”
Mathiang’s goats are his most precious possession, allowing him to feed his family with no other source of income.
“We rely on our animals for food,” said Mathiang. “I take them to
the market in Warrap and then exchange them for food such as sorghum or
groundnuts, which is the only food we eat. But when our goats run out I
do not know what we will do. I think our only choice will be to start
eating the leaves from the trees.”
The sharp rise in cattle raids and conflict across south Sudan has exacerbated an already serious humanitarian situation. Drought has ruined crops and pasture, leaving animals weak and people seriously malnourished.
Unable to plant or harvest crops because of the conflict and drought, with their animals gone and little food left in reserve, many people like Mathiang are eating just one meal a day, often consisting of nothing more than berries or boiled grass. More than 40 per cent of people in south Sudan are struggling to feed themselves, and the region now sits poised on the brink of a serious food crisis.
“Back in our village I used to grow maize and groundnuts, and I used to have cattle which allowed me to feed my children,” said Mathiang. “But the amount of food we have to eat has drastically reduced, and now my children are thin and weak. They are always hungry and crying but we don’t have any food to give them.”
Mathiang explained that whenever he takes one of his goats to market he can expect to sell it for around 30 Sudanese pounds. One year ago this may have bought him a small sack of sorghum, but the drought has meant that many areas in south Sudan have barely harvested anything this year. In Warrap all the food for sale in the market has been imported from Uganda and is being sold at staggeringly high prices. Today one sack of sorghum will cost Mathiang 85 Sudanese pounds, or three precious goats.
This lack of food and the appalling conditions that they are living in has already had a tragic impact on Mathiang’s family. Just two weeks ago his mother passed away. “My mother was a strong woman before we left our village, she was not ill but since we came here her health deteriorated and she became weak and frail. This is because we have no food,” explained Mathiang.
According to the UN around 350,000 people like Mathiang and his family are currently displaced as a result of inter-ethnic fighting in south Sudan. “Many hundreds of people from our village and neighbouring villages have fled their homes after they burnt and people were attacked,” he said. “Even in this area you will find hundreds of people like us living in the bush with nothing, getting food and water wherever they can find it.”
“I do not know how long we will have to live like this for. We are waiting for the government to tell us that it is safe to go back, but even when that happens we will be very scared because we do not have any guns to protect ourselves,” said Mathiang.
“When we go back we will be returning to nothing; no house, no animals, no crops. We do not know what will happen to us, and have no choice but to leave everything in the hands of God.”
Article also featured on Reuters AlertNet.