Tiny South Sudan island is refuge for terrified families

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NTP: South Sudan stranded families and violence
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Tiny South Sudan island is refuge for terrified families
In this photo taken Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, displaced people live in a camp of makeshift tents at Kok island, where around 900 people have taken shelter from fighting, in Unity State, South Sudan. Kok Island in Unity State has become a place of misery, with hundreds of war-weary people reaching there to seek shelter from the violence, just some of the more than 2 million displaced by South Sudanâs civil war, which continues despite a peace accord signed in August. (AP Photo/Jason Patinkin)
In this photo taken Monday, Oct. 12, 2015, displaced people bathe, wash, and drink at Kok island, where around 900 people have taken shelter from fighting, in Unity State, South Sudan. Kok Island in Unity State has become a place of misery, with hundreds of war-weary people reaching there to seek shelter from the violence, just some of the more than 2 million displaced by South Sudanâs civil war, which continues despite a peace accord signed in August. (AP Photo/Jason Patinkin)
In this photo taken Monday, Oct. 12, 2015, an unidentified man with a gun stands watch over displaced people, who have taken shelter from fighting, in a rebel-held part of Leer county, in Unity State, South Sudan. Kok Island in Unity State has become a place of misery, with hundreds of war-weary people reaching there to seek shelter from the violence, just some of the more than 2 million displaced by South Sudanâs civil war, which continues despite a peace accord signed in August. (AP Photo/Jason Patinkin)
In this photo taken Monday, Oct. 12, 2015, some of the around 900 displaced people who have taken refuge sleep under only mosquito nets in the open because there are not enough tents, in Kok Island, Unity State, South Sudan. Kok Island in Unity State has become a place of misery, with hundreds of war-weary people reaching there to seek shelter from the violence, just some of the more than 2 million displaced by South Sudanâs civil war, which continues despite a peace accord signed in August. (AP Photo/Jason Patinkin)
In this photo taken Monday, Oct. 12, 2015, a displaced woman on Luth island, near Kok Island, shows a handful of ground up water lily bulbs which she uses for flour, in Unity State, South Sudan. Kok Island in Unity State has become a place of misery, with hundreds of war-weary people reaching there to seek shelter from the violence, just some of the more than 2 million displaced by South Sudanâs civil war, which continues despite a peace accord signed in August. (AP Photo/Jason Patinkin)
In this photo taken Sunday, Oct. 11, 2015, a displaced woman and her children ride in a wooden canoe through a swamp, where the thick reed marshes protect against attacks, as they flee from Kok Island in Leer county to Nyal in Panyijar county, a trip that costs $20 and many cannot afford, in Unity State, South Sudan. Kok Island in Unity State has become a place of misery, with hundreds of war-weary people reaching there to seek shelter from the violence, just some of the more than 2 million displaced by South Sudanâs civil war, which continues despite a peace accord signed in August. (AP Photo/Jason Patinkin)
In this photo taken Sunday, Oct. 11, 2015, a man uses a wooden pole to push a canoe carrying a reporter through a swamp, as the man makes the return journey to Kok Island after ferrying displaced families fleeing fighting in that area, in Leer County in Unity State, South Sudan. Kok Island in Unity State has become a place of misery, with hundreds of war-weary people reaching there to seek shelter from the violence, just some of the more than 2 million displaced by South Sudanâs civil war, which continues despite a peace accord signed in August. (AP Photo/Jason Patinkin)
FILE-- In this file photo of Friday, Sept. 25, 2015. South Sudan government soldiers in the town of Koch, Unity state, South Sudan. Fifty-two soldiers and rebels have been killed in recent fighting in South Sudanâs contested state of Unity, a military official Saturday, blaming rebels for the latest violation of a peace deal signed last month amid high hopes for peace. ((AP Photo/Jason Patinkin-file)
People queue for food being distributed of Koch, Unity state, South Sudan, Friday, Sept. 25, 2015. The regional bloc that mediated South Sudan's peace agreement says both sides have violated the deal signed last month. (AP Photo/Jason Patinkin)
South Sudan's rebel leader Riek Machar speaks to the media about the situation in South Sudan following last week's peace agreement with the government, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Monday, Aug. 31, 2015. South Sudan's rebel leader Riek Machar warned reporters Monday that he is concerned the South Sudanese government is not respecting the cease-fire and that this could sabotage a peace agreement between the warring sides. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene)
In this photo taken on Saturday, July 25, 2015, James Gatmai Yoah, in Dablual, South Sudan, who has been living on leaves to survive. His home was burned in a previous attack. Soldiers believed to be South Sudanese government troops and allied militia stole relief food and killed seven people in an attack in a rebel-held part of Unity state, a local official said Thursday. The attack happened Monday in the village of Dablual. (AP Photo/Jason Patinkin)
A South Sudanese man wears a headdress of feathers and the national flag, as he attends an independence day ceremony in the capital Juba, South Sudan, Thursday, July 9, 2015. South Sudan marked four years of independence from Sudan on Thursday, but the celebrations were tempered by concerns about ongoing violence and the threat of famine. (AP Photo/Jason Patinkin)
South Sudanese soldiers march in a military parade during an independence day ceremony in the capital Juba, South Sudan, Thursday, July 9, 2015. South Sudan marked four years of independence from Sudan on Thursday, but the celebrations were tempered by concerns about ongoing violence and the threat of famine. (AP Photo/Jason Patinkin)
In this photo taken Friday, June 26, 2015, a displaced family arrives at the UN base in Bentiu, South Sudan. South Sudanâs army has burned people alive, raped and shot girls, and forced tens of thousands from their homes, according to interviews with survivors by The Associated Press and corroborated by human rights groups. (AP Photo/Jason Patinkin)
In this photo taken Monday, June 29, 2015, a newly-arrived displaced woman holds a child as they sit in the UN base in Bentiu, South Sudan. South Sudanâs army has burned people alive, raped and shot girls, and forced tens of thousands from their homes, according to interviews with survivors by The Associated Press and corroborated by human rights groups. (AP Photo/Jason Patinkin)
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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.

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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."

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