Flying into Leer on a small UNHCR plane I receive strict instructions not to film and photograph anything on the landing strip. There’s precious little to film anyway—a long dirt runway cut through some low trees and scrub, with one faded red shipping container on the side. It has ‘Leer International Airport’ hand-painted on the side. Some government soldiers however are lingering between the trees, and they hate to be filmed.
Just down the road is Leer town, a collection of small corrugated metal stalls and houses now pulled apart and scattered across the dusty ground. In the main drag that runs through the town, upturned cars rust on their side. A lonely blue church seems untouched, save for the front door having been nearly pulled off.
There are almost no people, and those who have come are clearly visiting for a precious resource. A man chopped wood from a tree and a small group of women filled buckets of water at a pump well just a few meters from the church.
The town of Leer has been fought over relentlessly since the outbreak of the war over three years ago. Civilians fled into the nearby marshes, abandoning any real means to feed themselves. They would normally plant crops like wheat and ochre, adding to their diet whatever they could afford from Leer’s markets.
Just a few kilometers down a dirt road is rebel-held territory. Crossing the front line is a quiet, simple affair, as we drive past a small group of non-uniformed men with rifles slung across their soldiers—the rebels. The quiet betrays the regular outbursts of maniacal violence here that chased locals into the vast swathes of wilderness beyond the town.
Those in rebel territory have ventured out today however. A few hundred who have gone on behalf of their loved ones to collect hand-outs from the aid agencies. WFP drop food from a noisy plane circling in the sky, and nearby the ICRC are handing out maize seeds and tools like hoes for planting. If they can get the seeds in the ground soon, they can harvest the wheat in August. They’ll have to risk creeping out of the marshes to nearby land to plant it. Every day each person in this area treads a delicate balance between losing the fight to live to hunger or to a bullet.