NYAL, South Sudan – Tracing his worn fingers over a rundown sewing machine, Peter Koang steadied a piece of fabric under the needle. He pressed his foot to the pedal as a skirt began to take shape.
“This is all I have left,” the 47-year-old tailor said of the device.
When South Sudan’s civil war broke out five years ago, the father of ten lost everything he owned during repeated attacks by government forces on his hometown of Leer in Unity State, in the country’s north. Koang was once a prominent businessman in his community: In addition to working as a tailor, he owned two shops in town. But in the war’s first two years, Koang said, soldiers burned down his house, demolished his shops and stole his cattle, an important source of wealth and livelihood for villagers there.
But there was one thing Koang wouldn’t let them destroy, he said. His sewing machine.
“This is too important to me,” he said. “It sustains my family.”
Today, Koang shelters in the opposition-held town of Nyal in Unity State. He’s opened a small shop in the town center and has made a name for himself as one of the most talented tailors. Koang makes blouses for women, shirts for children and suits for men from the host community while also serving the increasing number of displaced people who are still pouring in. They travel for days by foot and canoe through marshes and swamps to reach Nyal.
Half a decade of fighting in war-torn South Sudan has killed almost 400,000 people and displaced millions, creating one of the world’s fastest-growing refugee crises and Africa’s biggest human exodus since the 1994 Rwandan genocide. More than 4 million people have been forced to leave their homes, according to the United Nations. While more than 2 million have sought refuge across the border in neighboring countries, including Uganda and Kenya, nearly 2 million more remain internally displaced – the majority of them, like Koang, having lost most of their belongings. Many have survived mass murders and rapes.
Nyal has been relatively calm in the two years Koang has lived there. Running his shop has allowed him to generate enough income to provide for his family and send his children to school.
He estimated that, together with one other tailor, he has clothed at least 300 displaced people in two years.
‘They Didn’t Spare Anybody’
As one of South Sudan’s last opposition-held territories, Nyal and its surrounding small islands – patches of fertile land nestled in swampy waters – have become a makeshift refuge for people fleeing brutality throughout the country. The war erupted in 2013, originally a power struggle between the current president, Salva Kiir, his former deputy Riek Machar, and other factions. A power-sharing agreement between Kiir, Machar and rebel groups signed on September 12 is the latest attempt at peace.
But the peace remains fragile amid continued attacks. Unity State still experiences fighting, including a surge of sexual violence. Earlier this month, 125 women and girls were raped and beaten in a 10-day period while walking to a food distribution center, according to aid group Doctors Without Borders. More than 200 civilians were killed in a particularly horrific round of attacks between April and May, including 35 children, according to a U.N. report.
On a visit to Nyal in August, Refugees Deeply spoke with families displaced by fighting in Unity State. They live crowded into small huts mixed within the host community, sharing accommodation with friends, relatives and strangers.
Many, like Nyabieli Gai, said they’ll return home only if the government removes its troops from their areas. The 50-year-old grandmother was displaced from Mayendit in May and now shelters in Nyal.
Seated in the yard outside her hut, Gai flailed her arms, explaining how she watched government soldiers gang-rape women and abduct children.
“They didn’t spare anybody,” she said. She and her granddaughter fled together to a nearby island, where they survived on water lilies for three months before making the four-day journey to the mainland of Nyal, Gai said.
Peter Maboz, a community leader who lives on nearby Raath island, said he’s heard countless terrible stories from people who have escaped to the island throughout the conflict.
“I feel sad because these are my people,” Maboz said, adding that he’s waiting for the day when all of the displaced people will be able to return to their homes.
Koang’s family has been displaced three times since the war began. Whenever they heard rumors of pending attacks, Koang would dig a hole in the ground and hide his sewing machine inside or conceal it in a nearby swamp, protected in a plastic bag. After each bout of violence, he retrieved the machine and carried it to the next settlement, where thousands of displaced people sought refuge from the fighting. There, he’d make clothes for people who’d lost theirs during the clashes.
“It was a very busy time. We had to support people who were naked and give them underwear,” Koang said of himself and his fellow tailor.
September’s power-sharing deal follows a failed agreement made in 2015, which ended with Machar, the former vice president, fleeing the country on foot. The latest deal is complex. It involves an eight-month pre-transitional period when opposition and government forces will become one national army, to be followed by a three-year transitional period culminating in elections. Machar has been allowed to return and serve as first vice president.
The U.S., the U.K. and Norway – known as the “troika” that helped South Sudan gain independence in 2011 – expressed concern over the agreement, saying it wasn’t realistic or sustainable.
“The Troika is committed to peace in South Sudan,” they said in a statement. “But in order to be convinced of the parties’ commitment, we will need to see a significant change in their approach.”
Oxfam has called on South Sudan’s government to put its people at the center of its peace process.
“Millions are in need of assistance and it’s going to take years for people to rebuild their lives,” said Nicolo’ Di Marzo, the organization’s deputy country director in South Sudan. “That’s why peace has to be sustainable, so that people can farm without fearing attack, can rebuild their livelihoods, and so that women and men can meaningfully participate in rebuilding their country.”
While some displaced South Sudanese say they want to be hopeful, most remain skeptical.
“We’ve been told there’s no longer fighting, but we are doubting. The biggest problem is that Kiir doesn’t trust Machar,” said Laurice Loin, captain of the opposition military for Panyijiar County, where Nyal town is located. He said he won’t recall his men from the battlefield until government forces remove theirs.
Meanwhile, civilians across the country are trying to pick up the pieces of their lives.
Koang tries to focus on making clothes. His fabric arrives by boat from South Sudan’s capital of Juba – though because of the war it takes anywhere from four weeks to three months to reach him.
Tending to the growing number of customers entering his shop, Koang said he’s thankful for his sewing machine, his lifeline.
“It’s transformed my life,” he said. “It’s helped educate my kids, and it’s helped people during the war. I’ll never go anywhere without it.”