Like thousands of other South Sudanese families caught up in their country's famine, Sara Dit and her 10 children are hiding from marauding gunmen in the swamps and islands of the river Nile.

The refuge has a steep price: families cannot farm crops or earn money to buy food. They eat water lily roots and the occasional fish.

Dit's family has not eaten for days.

"The children are sick but what can I do? There are no hospitals near us and we can't move far from where we are hiding. My older children go fishing but we can't get enough because we don't have tools," Dit told Reuters on Saturday, cradling her four-year-old son in a temporary nutrition clinic set up by UNICEF, the UN agency dedicated to children.

'We have been running from fighting for a long time. We settled in the island because it's much better there. But we can't leave to go buy food.' — Nyaluat Chol, South Sudanese mother of six

Nyaluat Chol, a mother of six, said her family had also survived on water lilies and palm fruit for the past year.

"We have been running from fighting for a long time. We settled in the island because it's much better there," the 31-year-old said.

"But we can't leave to go buy food. We eat the weed floating on the river, sometime we get fish." 

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Thousands of South Sudanese have been hiding from marauding gunmen in the swampy Nile islands, subsisting on weeds and the occasional fish. This woman waits with her family for food rations Saturday. (Siegfried Modola/Reuters)

The women were among a crowd of 20,000 people that emerged from the swamps and assembled at the rebel-held village of Thonyor, in Leer county, when they heard the United Nations was registering people for emergency rations.

Some families received fishing nets and rods from aid workers to keep them going until food arrived.

'At most they eat once in a day'

"What we've seen is a lot of people coming from the islands," said George Fominyen, a spokesman for the World Food Program. "They have been living on water lilies, they have been living on roots from weeds in the Nile, at most they eat once in a day."

The UN declared that parts of South Sudan are experiencing famine, the first time the world is has faced such a catastrophe in six years. Some 5.5 million people, nearly half the population, will not have a reliable source of food by July.

Famine deepens in South Sudan2:05