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

June 1, 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 is the worst we have seen,” she said of the country’s food crisis.

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 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.

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

Under a sharp midmorning sun in the capital, Elizabeth Kenyi and her husband, Johnson Ali, plucked vegetables from their garden along the White Nile, a tributary of the Nile.

For two decades, they have sold their okra, peppers and tomatoes in a nearby market. But even with a plentiful harvest this year, they are finding it harder than ever to feed their family of seven.

“The money that I got from the garden is useless,” Mr. Ali said.Elizabeth Kenyi and her husband grow okra, peppers and tomatoes in their garden. But they say the high inflation rate has made the money they earn useless.

While their produce commands a higher price than it did last year, prices for the staple grains they buy, like maize and sorghum, are climbing fast.

South Sudan's currency is in freefall and hyperinflation has squeezed virtually everyone. Before the war, one American dollar was worth about five South Sudanese pounds. By March, a dollar was worth about 220 pounds.

The impact has been devastating. A 2017 World Food Program report determined that the relative price of a meal in South Sudan was among the highest in the world.It found that people here typically needed to spend 155 percent of their daily income for a single plate of bean stew. To put it another way, a meal that would cost a New Yorker just $1.20 would cost someone in Juba the equivalent of $321.70.

Awaiting Aid That Can’t Be Delivered

With agriculture in tatters, emergency aid is keeping a growing share of the country alive.

By early 2018, half of South Sudan’s population relied on food aid, according to the United Nations, and the percentage will grow as the hunger season reaches its peak in the coming weeks.Women waited during a monthly distribution of food at a United Nations camp on the outskirts of Juba.

But delivering that aid is another matter entirely. The rainy season hits during these lean months, too, turning many roads into rivers of impassable mud.

Beyond that, at least 100 humanitarian workers have been killed here since the start of the conflict, 30 in the last year alone, targeted by warring parties that think the efforts are helping their enemies.

Even within the protected camps set up around the country by the United Nations, there is not enough food to go around.

Mrs. Chok, the woman who boiled leaves for her children, had been at a protected area in Juba for a month. The camps sprang up in 2013 as ethnic minorities who feared violence from government forces and their supporters fled to the base of the United Nations peacekeeping mission. Many stayed, and the camps have sprawled into makeshi