Famine Is the Final Straw as War-Weary South Sudanese Flood Capital

  • Declaration of mass hunger was world’s first since 2011
  • Civilians flee to Juba as three-year conflict hits farming

Since South Sudan’s war erupted, Mary Nyal’s husband has vanished and she narrowly escaped being raped by armed men. But it was looming famine that finally forced her to flee her home county and live hand-to-mouth in the capital.

“I had no way of getting food to eat,” the 33-year-old mother of three said as she clutched her baby to her chest and asked passers-by for change in a market in central Juba. “The last time I reached my field to harvest was in 2015.”

A World Food Programme helicopter brings food to village in Unity State on Feb. 17, 2017.

UNICEF

Nyal’s home area of Mayendit county in Unity state, about 400 kilometers (249 miles) north of Juba, was one of two South Sudanese areas where the United Nations last month made the world’s first official declaration of famine since 2011. The African nation’s three-year civil war has already claimed tens of thousands of lives. Now 100,000 people in Unity are starving and 5.5 million, about half the country’s population, may face food shortages by July.

The UN is among the groups who have called it a man-made crisis, caused by the conflict, in which both government forces and rebels have committed atrocities, and a collapsing economy. The government says thousands of people have arrived in Juba -- a city of more than 400,000 -- since the final few months of last year, propelled by insecurity, hunger and the difficulties of living in UN protection sites.

Aid Stymied

Those like Nyal who’ve made it to the capital are comparatively lucky. Tens of thousands more people remain in remote regions that desperately need food and other aid that’s being stymied by the threat of more violence. Such risks led to humanitarian agencies being told to evacuate Mayendit last week, according to UN mission head David Shearer.

“It is the most vulnerable in society who are most affected by this shocking situation,” Shearer said in a March 3 statement. “They are the women and children who have fled their homes and livelihoods in terror and taken shelter outside of South Sudan or, in the case of many, in the swamps and forests.” The UN says $1.6 billion is needed this year to fund relief efforts.

Until July, the conflict was mostly concentrated in areas such as Unity and Upper Nile in the country’s oil-rich north -- the traditional home of the Nuer community, many of whom backed former Vice President Riek Machar’s rebellion. That changed after violence flared in the capital and a short-lived government in which Machar shared power with President Salva Kiir collapsed. More than 3 million people have been forced from their homes since the war began, with about 1.5 million sheltering in neighboring countries.

Monica Keji, who fled to Juba from Yei town near the Ugandan border, said the emergence of new armed groups had by September made it impossible to reach the fields where she’d planted potatoes, cassava and beans. The fertile soil of the broader Equatoria region had led to it being dubbed the breadbasket of the world’s newest nation.

Food Spoiling

“We were trapped,” the 28-year-old recalled in the capital. “If you try to go to collect food, you can get shot. I had plenty to eat there on my land, but I had to suffer like everyone else in the town.”

South Sudanese Information Minister Michael Makuei Lueth said by phone that the government is working on returning those who fled to Juba to their home counties. He didn’t explain how that would be implemented in areas still riven by violence.

Keji, meanwhile, is doing anything she can -- collecting trash, begging, washing dishes -- to make a few South Sudanese pounds and stay put. A decline in local oil production and the global price for the commodity have devastated the nation’s economy, with annual inflation accelerating to almost 500 percent.

“People are experiencing hunger and yet food is spoiling in their fields,” Keji said of the situation in Yei. “It’s baffling.”

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