In the chaos of South Sudan’s civil war, it took three years for Nyagonga Machul to find her lost children.
Machul had travelled from her village to the capital when President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, fired his deputy Riek Machar, a Nuer, in 2013. The dismissal triggered a civil war in the world’s newest nation that has increasingly been fought along ethnic lines.
Machul found herself cut off from her son Nhial, now aged 14 and the protector of the family; 10-year-old Ruai and 8-year-old Machiey, brothers who love board games and swimming; 6-year-old Nyameer with her shy smile; and Nyawan, now four but then the much-loved baby.
For years, Machul prayed for news. In December, she heard her children were alive – but far away in Bentiu, the northern gateway to the nation’s oil fields. More than a thousand 1,000 km (620 miles) of battlefield stretched between them.
Machul had left the children with their grandmother, but one night gunmen had attacked their village.
“I was in bed sleeping. All of a sudden I heard the sound of gunshots, then people shouting, screaming,” said Nhial.
The panicked children scattered and hid near the river Nile. Wandering back, they found each other, but not their grandmother. They decided to flee.
They walked through swamps, in chest-deep water infested with snakes and crocodiles. They begged food from families with little to spare.