As South Sudan’s conflict grinds on, Sterling Carter warns of the famine ahead as the rainy season sets in.
The threat of famine in South Sudan is real, and civilians are already risking rape, abduction, and murder in their search for food. Since fighting erupted last December in South Sudan, thousands of people have died and over a million have been displaced in a conflict sparked by long-running political disputes between President Salva Kiir and former Vice-President Riek Machar.
Although the two have struck an apparent deal to end the conflict and form a transitional government, the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan has devastated thousands of lives.
In Leer, humanitarians are already witnessing the shadows of looming famine. The home of opposition leader Riek Machar, Leer saw heavy fighting in February and government control through mid-April when the opposition retook the city. Over 1500 homes burned, and the once vibrant market, one of the largest in the region, was reduced to a broken husk of rusted iron shacks.
These market stalls are now occupied by hundreds of internally displaced people who have fled continuing violence around the state capital, Bentiu. Schools, churches, and health clinics have similarly been occupied as any available space becomes refuge against the heavy rains that started early and will continue until September.
These IDPs bring nothing with them. They have no tools, no land, and no seeds. Even with immediate humanitarian intervention, they will most likely miss the planting time.
The hunger season in South Sudan lasts through the rainy season. Subsistence farmers plant the last of their sorghum, which is also their main foodstuff, and wait until the harvest, relying on wild foods to supplement a meagre diet.
Malnutrition typically increases in the hunger season, but not like this. The doctors at Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF), who have operated a hospital in Leer since the 1980s, typically see a maximum of 700 severely malnourished children in the course of a year. Their acute malnutrition clinic, which holds 1675 people, was filled in less than three weeks; more and more people arrive every day.
While on an assessment mission for Nonviolent Peaceforce, one of the largest protection actors in South Sudan, I witnessed these people arrive – the elderly, the disabled, and the very young – trundled in wheelbarrows or carried like children. Their thin arms, emaciated legs, and prominent ribs evoke the worst images of the famine that devastated the country thirty years ago. A different war, a similar outcome.
As the grain disappears, the Nuer who inhabit Leer have been forced to slaughter the herds of cattle that are a sign of wealth, power, and prestige in their culture. James Chibok, has been a butcher in Leer since 1977. Before the conflict, he slaughtered between four and six cows per day. Now, that number has jumped to between 25 and 30.
He is aided in his work by several boys, unaccompanied minors who fled the recent government assault on Bentiu and lost their families along the way. They live in the market shacks and are paid in blood from the slaughter, which they cook and sell to other IDPs for 25 cents per piece.
For many, even this is too much. Several women beg every day for blood, just enough to keep them and their children fed. When John, our translator for the mission who is originally from Leer, witnessed this, he became too emotional. We had to stop the interview. “I have never seen this in my culture. This not something that we do.”
In fits and starts, some grain has entered the market. Yellow corn, sourced from last year’s harvest in Mayom County, is piled in pitifully small mounds that cost four to five times more than the norm.
This grain, however, has been bought with substantial risk. Women walk five to seven days through the bush to reach Mayom County, 175 kilometers away as the crow flies. They risk abduction, rape, and death from militias operating in the area. The threat has become so great that many now hire elderly women to make the journey for them, as they consider it less likely that these matriarchs will face rape and/or abduction.
This belief seems somewhat supported by the IDPs themselves. One elderly woman, Martha, spoke of her harrying flight from Bentiu shortly after the government retook the city in early May. On the road to Guit she was stopped at a checkpoint by heavily armed soldiers supported by an armored personnel carrier. The men took her sixteen-year old son and slit his throat in front of her. They took her daughter, who she hasn’t seen since.
Martha is now living in the market with three other women and thirteen children, five of whom are her grandchildren. She came to Leer because she heard it was safe, but now she is on the margin. She missed out on a recent food distribution – pushed away by young men fighting over half rations.
Martha’s story is not unique. Many of those who fled Bentiu traveled at night, avoiding patrols, stumbling across bodies in the darkness. Nuer taboo related to the handling of corpses prevented them from determining whether these men, women, and children had died from violence, starvation or thirst.
In Leer, they have found relative safety, but their personal security is under constant threat from the lack of food and shelter. This lack of resources, and response strategies fueled by desperation, is putting South Sudan’s internally-displaced citizens at risk of abduction, rape, and extrajudicial killings. The UN and other agencies have pledged support, but as the rains set in and airstrips become inundated with mud, the logistical challenges will be immense.
Already, the alarms are ringing throughout the international media that without an end to the fighting, South Sudan will face one of the worst famines in recent memory. For those who have found refuge in Leer, these alarms are no longer a warning, they are a reality.
This post originally appeared on Compare Afrique.
Sterling Carter is currently in South Sudan, working as part of the Mobile Protection Team with the organisation Nonviolent Peaceforce. He writes on the intersection of political economy, arts and culture, and human rights.