Famine-Stricken South Sudanese Hide in Swamps to Escape War

  • Civilians battling mass hunger tend crops while gunmen sleep
  • Africa nation saw world’s first famine declaration in 6 years

By day, Mary Nyarac scours swamps for fish and edible water lilies. When darkness falls and South Sudan’s militias retreat to their bases, she and hundreds of others fleeing a three-year civil war slip onto dry land and tend crops to stave off famine.

Prowling hyenas pose a threat during Nyarac’s night-time harvests, but they worry her less than the armed men who can appear in daytime, the 20-year-old said as she sat beneath neem trees in the northern county of Leer, one of two areas in South Sudan where the United Nations in February made the world’s first declaration of famine since 2011. She and other residents are facing a catastrophe that’s being echoed by looming mass food shortages in Somalia, Yemen and northern Nigeria.

Refugees at a food distribution center in Leer, South Sudan.

Photographer: Lynsey Addario/Getty Images Reportage

“It’s worth the risk so me and the children can have something better to eat,” Nyarac said after collecting seeds from an aid group in the town of Thonyor. Her husband fled to neighboring Sudan when violence flared in 2015 and she now lives in the swamps with two children to whom she isn’t related.

The war has forced more than a million people to flee across South Sudan’s borders and stretched a UN peacekeeping force of some 11,000 troops from more than 50 countries including the U.S. and China.

Man-Made Famine

About 100,000 people are facing starvation in the two counties in a famine the UN has described as the man-made product of a conflict that’s already claimed tens of thousands of lives and caused economic collapse. Some 5.5 million people, about half the country’s population, may be short of food by July. Annual inflation was more than 425 percent in February.

The civil war that began December 2013 in the world’s newest country has decimated farming relied on by the majority of South Sudan’s population, creating a “chronic crop production deficit countrywide,” according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. More severe fighting in Unity state, where Leer and Mayendit counties are located, meant aid groups often lacked access. Relief workers have faced the threat of violence after famine was declared.

Three aid workers were killed in the northwest on April 10, bringing the number of humanitarian staff who’ve died in South Sudan’s conflict to 82, according to the UN. The UN’s relief coordinator in the country, Eugene Owusu, told reporters Wednesday that, while some 400,000 people in Leer, Mayendit and neighboring areas have been given life-saving assistance, “much more needs to be done.”

Scorched Buildings

The population has fled Thonyor, about 420 kilometers (260 miles) north of South Sudan’s capital, Juba, and all that’s left are scorched buildings. It’s controlled by rebels fighting President Salva Kiir’s army, which holds Leer town, less than 10 miles away. Sporadic fighting erupts even as both sides say they respect a cease-fire.

These northern reaches of the country are mainly inhabited by the Nuer, South Sudan’s second-largest ethnic community, to which rebel leader Riek Machar belongs. The UN says pro-government forces have committed atrocities against Nuer civilians, as have insurgents against Kiir’s Dinka people.

There was no choice but to hide in the swamps, said Nyageng Nguen, a 45-year-old with six children, who’s been living there since gunmen stormed her village in December.

“It was indiscriminate -- random shooting of civilians, burning houses, looting cattle, raping of girls, kidnapping,” she recalled. “When we lost our livestock and couldn’t farm anymore, life became unbearable.”

While the wetland gives sanctuary, “living there for long is not healthy,” she said.

Scott Doucet, a representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross, told reporters during a visit to Leer last week that he hoped residents could start planting in May and harvest in August.

“Slowly, with food aid, the situation may become better,” said Gatluok Chuol, a 70-year-old who lives in the swamps with his three wives and nine children. “But we need something more than that: peace.”

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