In South Sudan, a Never-Ending Hunger Season Puts Millions in Danger

The Times went to South Sudan to document the extent of hunger as food grew scarce. This year is expected to be the worst yet, as millions potentially face acute malnutrition.

Nyantioop Mach outside her home in a camp for displaced people in Juba, South Sudan. “This year is the worst we have seen,” she said of the country’s food crisis. Credit Kassie Bracken/The New York Times

5/30/2018 - JUBA, South Sudan — The hunger season came early this year.

By February, once seen as a time of plenty, Nyabolli Chok had run out of food for her three children in their village here in South Sudan. She knew they had to leave.

“We were eating leaves off of trees,” she said, describing how she boiled them into a watery soup.

“Ron reath,” she said — her words for the hunger season. South Sudan’s dozens of ethnic groups use different names for the months when food becomes scarce until the next harvest. But the fears are the same: malnutrition, disease, even death.

And this year is expected to be the worst yet.

More than four years of civil war — most of this young country’s existence — have chased millions from their homes, leaving countless farms abandoned. The economy has been obliterated. Fighting has overcome some of the nation’s most productive land. Food prices are ruinously high.

Even during harvest time in January, when food was most abundant, more than five million people — almost half the population — did not have enough to eat. Now, as food runs out over the next few months, international officials expect that number to grow considerably, with millions potentially facing acute malnutrition.

This year’s harvest was the smallest on record since South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011, with the country producing only a fraction of its needs, according to the World Food Program.

On top of that, peace talks have stalled and cease-fires have largely been ignored, which means the fighting has cut off some areas from emergency help. Aid workers have been targeted by government and rebel fighters alike, making food distribution increasingly difficult.

Even here in the capital, which had been largely immune to the food crisis, many families are finding it impossible to pay the steep prices demanded in the city’s markets, their options vanishing as the currency crashes.

Families from across the country pile into a clinic for malnourished children, setting aside the political and ethnic divides that have torn this new nation to shreds. Some mothers come from areas backing the government. Others have husbands, brothers and sons who fight for the rebels.

Dozens of the women lie outside on the floor, their children wrapped in blankets. The signs of malnutrition are clear: Swollen bellies and emaciated limbs. Skin hanging in folds from tiny bones. Bodies covered in open sores, the painful result of edema breaking the skin.

Cecilia Kideen feeding her 9-month-old daughter, Sarah Keji, at a Unicef clinic in Juba. Credit Kassie Bracken/The New York Times

Cecilia Kideen struggled to feed her 9-month-old daughter, Sarah. Her breast milk is not enough, as she barely eats one meal a day.

“The mothers,” she said, “are really suffering.”

South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, was born from an enormous international push to end decades of conflict between the north and south of what was then Sudan.

But just two years later, the new country was at war.

In December 2013, a feud between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar quickly descended into a conflict that has fractured the country, killed tens of thousands of people and decimated what was already one of the world’s least developed nations.

“There are very few populations that are escaping the impacts of hunger,” said Elizabeth White, Oxfam’s South Sudan policy adviser. “But all roads lead back to conflict and insecurity.”

Talks between the government and opposition leaders have been postponed. But even if peace can be reached, the hunger crisis still looms.

Farming on the Front Lines

The civil war in South Sudan has set off the largest refugee crisis in Africa since the Rwandan genocide, the United Nations says. More than two million people have fled the country, crippling food production. Nearly two million others have abandoned their homes and remain scattered around the country, leaving behind ghost towns and untended fields.

At the nation’s southern border, dozens of refugees cross a narrow bridge into Uganda each day, bringing stories of hunger with them.

Mary Yar, 20, arrived with her 1-year-old son at a small reception center on the Ugandan side. At the site, the first assessment that refugees go through is a malnutrition screening

“There is no food there,” Mrs. Yar said of her home village, pointing back toward the bridge to South Sudan.

Mary Yar, right, crossed the border from Nimule, South Sudan, into neighboring Uganda. She arrived in a United Nations reception center with her 1-year-old son, Abram. Credit Kassie Bracken/The New York Times

During the height of the hunger season last year, South Sudanese arrived by the thousands, said Geoffrey Chandiga, a child assessment officer.

He keeps a tally of new arrivals on a whiteboard, noting that officials are bracing for an uptick in the months ahead.

Two years ago, South Sudan’s war expanded into southern parts of the country that had long been seen as the country’s breadbasket. People flooded across the Ugandan border. Most have yet to return.

When United Nations peacekeepers visited the areas in early 2017, they saw entire villages burned to the ground.

$321.70 for a Plate of Beans