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'Last time I got food, armed men took everything': famine in South Sudan

With aid delivery under threat from armed gangs and terrified civilians in hiding, agencies warn that intensifying famine could become unmanageable.

Women wait at a World Food Programme distribution site in Thonyor, Leer county. After three years of civil war South Sudan’s economy is collapsing, leaving 4.8 million people food insecure and 100,000 facing famine. Photograph: Siegfried Modola/Reuters

After months of eating water lilies and palm fruits, Nyanai Riek finally gets her hands on a life-saving bag of sorghum. Aid has now arrived in Leer, one of two counties in South Sudan where famine was recently declared – but it may not mean an end to Riek’s fight for survival.

“Last time I got food, armed men came to my house and took everything,” she says. They pointed their guns at her, threatening to kill her family if she didn’t reveal the spot behind her mud hut where she had buried the grains in a futile attempt to hide them.

With the United Nations warning that three years of civil war and mounting disrespect for humanitarian operations have left 100,000 people facing starvation, aid agencies are ramping up efforts to get to some of South Sudan’s most remote areas. Food has now been delivered to 330,000 people in southern and central Unity state, but it’s uncertain whether those most affected by hunger have been reached.

Remote islands in the swamps where many have been hiding from ongoing conflict are several days’ canoe travel from food distribution sites. Now, many may simply be too weak to make the journey.

For some time now, aid has been the only way for people to survive here. But over the past year, even that lifeline has almost dried up. Across all of South Sudan, 4.9 million people are severely food insecure, a 75% increase compared with December 2015. The figure is expected to rise to 5.5 million before July, with fears that more people could become at risk of famine.

“It’s an incredible number of people,” says Serge Tissot, who heads the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) in South Sudan. “100,000 in a famine situation we can deal with because we have the logistical capacity. But if we shift to 500,000 in famine situation, it will become too much.”

Children cross a swamp area to a World Food Programme food distribution site in Leer county. Photograph: Siegfried Modola/Reuters

Aid delivery is constantly under threat, as the UN’s humanitarian coordinator, Eugene Owusu, attests: “Because of insecurity, we’ve not been able to provide much-needed, life-saving assistance to many people.”

Aid agencies have struggled to maneuver the increasingly fragmented landscape of armed factions. Loose chains of command among government forces mean that troops on the ground rarely heed assurances of safe humanitarian passage granted by those in charge, and armed groups have exploited the fragile situation to seize donations.

At times, requests for access are rejected outright by all sides to the conflict, but more so by the government, which the UN has accused of deliberately starving civilians. The government pledged to allow aid agencies unfettered access, but just a week after famine was declared, local state officials told 28 aid workers to leave some of the worst affected areas. At least one organisation was subsequently stripped of its supplies.

In Leer, looted NGO compounds dot the side of the road that leads from the dusty airstrip to the deserted town. The last aid organisations withdrew last summer after their facilities were ransacked, amid fears that stolen supplies, and especially fuel, could be used in military campaigns.

Recently, local government compounds were upgraded with corrugated iron sheets and other materials taken from deserted NGO compounds, local sources say.

The civilian population faces the greatest risks. With the economy in tatters and the government on the brink of bankruptcy, soldiers often go for months without getting paid. They rob civilians of food as much out of necessity as part of a systematic effort to deprive a population perceived as sympathetic to the other side. But the dire economic situation has also given rise to gangs who are not allied with either the government or the opposition.

“Some of these people are just criminals. They live in the forest, and when they hear there has been a distribution, they come out and take our food,” says Rebecca Nyading, who has come to the food aid site in Leer. “I hope that this time, they’ll give out enough food so nobody has to loot.”

Women and children wait for food aid in Thonyor, Leer. Photograph: Siegfried Modola/Reuters

At times, aid agencies have given smaller rations more often, so that people have less to carry if they are forced to run and hide. Ultimately, the fragile security situation means that giving people aid can make them vulnerable to attack. “You have the choice of doing nothing and you are sure that people will die, or you try to do something and there is a risk,” says Tissot.

The spread of violence to previously peaceful parts of South Sudan is largely to blame for the drastic increase in the number of people requiring aid. Known as the breadbasket of South Sudan, the region of Equatoria used to produce a surplus that was trucked to markets in the Northern Bahr el Ghazal region. But in the wake of last year’s clashes in the capital, Juba, Equatoria has become the epicentre of violence. Food production has come to a near halt, sending ripple effects across the entire nation.

In other parts of the country, repeated displacements have made it impossible for people to get back on their feet. In February, more than 20,000 people fled the town of Wau Shilluk, once a sanctuary for those who fled fighting in Malakal in 2014. Last autumn, the fields around Wau Shilluk had finally produced a decent crop. But the harvest was left behind when the village came under fire.

“We ran with just the clothes on our backs,” says Christina Simon. For weeks, her family has been sleeping under a tree near the village of Aburoc, eating whatever they could find in the bush.

Perhaps the only thing worse than hunger is the lack of hope that peace will come any time soon. Those who can afford it have already fled north to Sudan, the country South Sudan fought for decades for independence. With the de facto collapse of the western-backed peace deal signed in 2015, few seem to have confidence in the international community to do more than deliver aid.

“The world doesn’t want to see the problem of South Sudan,” says Simon. “There’s nobody who can solve our problem.”


(C) 2017 The Guardian


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