Chahari, South Sudan - The dull thud of a coconut being thrown against a flat stone summons the children around the low straw-thatched mud tukul, a traditional round house in eastern Africa.

 Nadia* pulls the orange pulp out of the fruit where the rind has cracked, breaking it up among many tiny hands.

"One person was shot dead in front of me, so I had to jump over his body," she says, describing her escape from the town of Ikotos, in the Imatong state of South Sudan.

Tens of thousands of people have been killed and more than 3.5 million have been displaced since South Sudan descended into war shortly after it seceded from Sudan in 2011. Starting in December 2013, President Salva Kiir's troops have clashed with those of rebel leader and former Vice President Riek Machar. A peace accord signed in August 2015 fell apart after less than three months.

Women and children have paid a particularly heavy price in the fighting with over two million children displaced and reports of ethnic cleansing and rape perpetrated by all sides in the conflict. And while the men fight, many women are left behind to carry the day-to-day burden of caring for their families.

This was not the first time Nadia had seen someone shot dead, but this time was different because she was on her own with her children.

Nadia is a single mother. Her youngest is six years old and both he and his two older brothers depend solely on her. Of their father, she says "he is not here," without further explanation.

In July 2016, when the rebel forces and the government army clashed in Ikotos, Nadia was working as a cleaner at a government office. "When a group of youths attacked the barracks, we shut ourselves into our house," she says. But an hour later, with the fighting becoming more intense, she left everything behind as she fled with her children.

They travelled for three days, hiding in the bush and surviving on grass and wild fruit, as they made their way to the village of Chahari in Eastern Equatoria state where her relatives lived.

The state was once considered a safe and fertile area of South Sudan. But, after the peace agreement failed, the fighting reached some cities in Eastern Equatoria as well. Two million people are internally displaced in South Sudan. Nadia is hoping to find a relatively peaceful life in this remote, rural area, far from the fighting engulfing the cities and larger towns.

Still, providing her children with enough food to eat is a struggle. A famine fuelled by drought and fighting has ravaged the region for four years.

Women digging in the fields, fetching water or picking wild fruit from trees are a familiar sight in these villages, while the men are away grazing livestock or fighting on the front line.

Most men here take more than one wife.

Maria Gaudenzi, area team leader for the AVSI Foundation, explains that often the men "are unable to take care of these nuclei, so all the responsibilities fall completely on their wives". The Italian non-governmental organisation (NGO) is the only active international NGO in this area. It has been running schooling, healthcare and food security programmes in partnership with the World Food Programme and UNICEF since 2005.

With husbands absent, women live by their wits, farming, caregiving, and working on side businesses to generate more income. Away from the frontline of the conflict, they are the ones upholding the country.

 

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