The news spreads fast during the day. The raiders are coming. Two columns of fighters, each thousands strong, armed with assault rifles.
“We will fight them. We will take our guns and defend ourselves,” says Simon Logocho, a stall holder in a scruffy market in Pibor, a remote town in eastern South Sudan.
Previous attacks – launched in a never-ending cycle of raid and counter-raid by rival tribes – have left hundreds dead and caused widespread destruction. The smaller town of Likuangole, about 30 miles away, was badly damaged earlier this year, while outlying villages were obliterated.
The raiders are still some days’ march away and there is hope they may decide Pibor is too large and too poor to be an attractive target. There is not much to loot in the town, a few hundred huts made of plastic and wood scattered between a river crossing and a dirt airstrip. There are almost no cattle any more, and only one trader retains a few sacks of rice.
Even the poorly armed, ill-disciplined soldiers – sent from Juba, the capital, to keep order and fend off the rebels – are hungry. Parents send their children to forage for wild fruit, berries and leaves, not to lessons.
“There is no food. Everyone is hungry. We have nothing left,” said Nadia Mayigu, a 32-year-old primary school teacher.
In a Unicef-supported feeding centre, 12-month-old Peter Ajus is weighed. His mother has walked for four days to bring him in. Photograph: Jason Burke for the Guardian
But the raiders are hungry too. Last week the UN said South Sudan, which gained independence from Sudan in 2011, was facing its “highest ever level of food insecurity”. About 7.5 million people, almost two-thirds of the population, are in need of humanitarian assistance. In some areas half the population are malnourished. An appeal by the UN for more money has faltered, with less than half of the $1.64bn (£1.2bn) budget requested for 2017 so far funded.
As elsewhere in Africa where mass starvation threatens, the crisis in South Sudan has been caused by war, not climatic catastrophe. The country has substantial revenues from oil and swaths of fertile agricultural land. But corruption and mismanagement have led to economic collapse, while widespread violence means empty fields, looted seed stocks, displaced farmers and disrupted transport. Pibor, which depends on the road to Juba for all supplies, has been cut off for months.
The crisis in the town has established a hierarchy of hunger.
Few have sufficient resources to be able to eat well, but some can still buy bags of rice at hugely inflated prices.
“Business is OK. There are still some who can pay,” says Ibrahim Adam, a trader from neighbouring Sudan who runs the single stall in the market with a significant stock of food.
Yards away, Juma Gocho, 25, who invested in a jerrycan of cooking oil and a sack of salt a month ago, sells tiny quantities of each. For weeks this has earned him enough to buy a glass of flour each day, which he shares among his family.
“It stops us getting too hungry, just enough to sleep. But if the road doesn’t open soon, my children will die,” Gocho says.
Though the rains have come, turning Pibor’s all-pervading dust to glutinous mud, it will be weeks before even those who have tiny plots of land can harvest crops of maize or sorghum.
Anna Koren, a destitute farmer from Pibor, stands amid crops with her children. They have no food and the crops won’t be edible for several weeks. Photograph: Jason Burke for the Guardian
The violence in South Sudan is complex. Some fighting pits government forces loyal to Salva Kiir, the president since independence, against a rough coalition of opposition groups. Some is motivated by hatred and competition between major ethnic groups such as the Dinka, Nuer, Shilluk and, around Pibor, the Murle tribes. Some is the consequence of local power grabs as much of the country slips into outright anarchy. Some is simply over cattle, or food.
But all is accompanied by widespread atrocities committed against civilians, including the abduction of children, massacres and gang rapes. Aid workers have also been targeted: six were killed on the road between Pibor and Juba last month. South Sudan’s leaders have been accused of “deliberate starvation tactics”.
The UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, which costs $1bn s year, has been repeatedly criticised for failing to stop such crimes. Since a peace deal between the president and his main rival Riek Machar collapsed last year, the mission’s 12,000 troops have been told to patrol more aggressively and are being reinforced by regional forces. A detachment of British military engineers has also arrived – one of the biggest peacekeeping deployments by the UK for decades.
But this effort has not halted the flow of desperate people seeking safety on islands, in swamps, in the UN’s overcrowded “civilian protection camps”, or in neighbouring countries.
Nor does it reassure the people of Pibor, who are far from certain the 200 Indian troops stationed there will protect them.
“I think they will stay on their base if the raiders come,” said Benjamin Korem, 21, an unemployed administrator.
The UN does distribute vast amounts of international food aid, largely through a hugely expensive airlift operation. During the rainy season even the few existing roads are impassable troughs of mud. Though one of the biggest aid efforts in the world, it is still inadequate, reaching only half of those in need.
Near the bottom of the hierarchy of hunger in Pibor, and scores of places like it around the country, are people like Mary Kadai, 33. The soldier’s wife depends on handouts from neighbours and relatives who themselves have almost nothing to give. “I had some things, some goats, clothes, but everything is gone,” Kadai says.
But even she is better placed than those in isolated outlying villages or those displaced by the ongoing fighting.
In the single feeding centre established in Pibor, supported by Unicef and run by a local NGO, dozens of women arrive each morning carrying their children. In February, the centre registered 38 children who were severely malnourished. Last month the total was 256.
“It’s because of the conflict. Their cattle are killed; sometimes their husbands or brothers. They have to move and leave everything. They sleep under trees. They eat grass,” said Harrison Jowang, the centre manager.
“They tell me of those who have died. There are many of them. The children often die on their way here, because people come so late … They tell me about those who are dying, out in the villages. There are many of them too.”
The full toll exacted by either fighting or the malnutrition it causes in South Sudan is unclear. So much of the country is without road or telephonic communication that news of massacres, raids, outbreaks of disease and even the deaths of hundreds of starving children takes weeks, even months, to reach the capitals and international agencies. A rough count of those killed by an intensifying outbreak of cholera – 250 in the past year – is thought to be a gross underestimate. “The truth is that no one is counting the dead,” said a veteran European aid worker in Juba.
One who has not been counted is the three-year-old daughter of Mary Cholil, 31, who died a month ago as her mother wandered in search of food and shelter near her burned out village, a five-day walk from Pibor.
“All our family is scattered because of the fighting. I learned about the centre too late for my smallest one. I buried her under a bush,” she says.
There is little chance of any immediate improvement for South Sudan. The international community is distracted by events elsewhere. Regional powers show little commitment to resolving the shattered country’s problems.
Outside Pibor’s battered primary school a group of schoolgirls gather as goats are handed over by an aid agency to the families of former child soldiers. The students form a line and dance slowly and carefully.
“There is no more rejoicing in our country. There is no more moving together in our country. But in the name of Jesus, we hope for ever,” they sing.
(c) 2017 The Guardian