07 Jul Starvation, exodus and genocide sees world’s newest nation South Sudan suffer
Bentiu, South Sudan: Before he went blind, this broken-down old man thought he’d seen it all.
Fleeing violence, those fortunate enough to reach a United Nations camp in Bentiu, South Sudan, remain caught between famine and war.
James Tut Riek was three years old in 1956 when Sudan achieved independence from its colonial ruler, Britain. But already the new nation was at war with itself.
Among the largely Christian tribes of southern Sudan, they called the Muslim northerners who ruled over them “the Arabs” and fought for an independent state. For 40 of the 55 years after colonial rule ended, civil war raged.
In 2005, at the start of an uneasy peace, James Tut went blind. He does not know why – “it just happened”.
Still, he had three daughters, land and cattle in his village of Mayendit. His daughters would earn the bride price from their suitors, bringing more cattle to see him through to a comfortable old age.
In July 2011, South Sudan erupted again, this time in celebration. A referendum for independence passed with almost 99 per cent of the vote. The south would break free from the north. It was all they had dreamed of. Billions in global aid and goodwill flowed in to help build a new nation.
It was to prove the high point of the country’s unity.
Just two years later “the crisis” began. Troops loyal to an increasingly paranoid President Salva Kiir fought the army of then vice-president Riek Machar. In this land of child soldiers and poverty, a vicious internal war has once again torn tribe from tribe, clan from clan.
Then, for the first time in all the wars, James Tut, 64, was forced from his home.
“All my property was taken. Because I am blind, people were running and taking me and I didn’t know where I was going. Day and night the enemy came,” he tells us.
“We went into the bush and to the riverside [to hide]. I heard that many people had been killed: children, women were raped.”
Two of his daughters were kidnapped and he has no idea where they are. He cannot walk without help and his remaining daughter can barely work after uniformed men forced her at gunpoint to show them the family’s property and livestock so they could steal it. They beat her, breaking her forearm, and speared her for good measure.
Now James Tut and his daughter sleep between pews on the dirt floor of a church in a United Nations protection camp. There are no more huts available. The wet season has come, and when it rains, the church floods and they are drenched.
“All the fights and all the wars we have seen before this have been good by comparison,” James Tut says bitterly, rubbing his battered eyes. “This crisis has … destroyed us. It’s left us with nothing.
“We have become the most vulnerable people on Earth.”
Perhaps 100,000 South Sudanese have been killed in the crisis – really another civil war – and 6 million, half the country’s population, urgently need help. A million have fled over the border to Uganda in what United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently described as “the biggest exodus of refugees in Africa since the Rwandan genocide”. In April, the Bidi Bidi refugee camp in Uganda became the world’s biggest.
For the first time, the United Nations has set up massive “Protection of Civilians” camps in South Sudan, which are guarded against soldiers and militias because of “a strong risk of genocide”.
The church where James Tut and his daughter live is within the largest of these camps, near Bentiu in the country’s north, where perhaps 120,000 people eke out a meagre existence.
Around the country, millions of people, robbed of land and cattle and fearing death, are at threat of starvation. Food production has dropped by 40 per cent. Inflation of more than 600 per cent has rendered the local currency, the pound, virtually useless. At the market in the capital Juba, all the produce is imported and a kilo of tomatoes costs up to 10 per cent of the average monthly salary – the equivalent in Australia would be perhaps $500 per kilo.
International aid has eased the situation slightly – famine was declared in March, but the declaration lifted in late June. The number in imminent danger of starving has declined, but those in need of humanitarian assistance overall is half the country’s total population and growing.
At a “stabilisation point” run by the NGO CARE in Bentiu town itself, the start of the rainy season in June has exposed the precariousness of life for a ward of eight mothers and their tiny babies.
Nyereka Maliyah looks terrified in the hospital as she nurses her year-old baby, Dictor Geng. Already, during the fighting, she lost one child, stillborn after a relative was shot dead. Now she’s worried about little Dictor, who is listless, with arms and legs that are twig-thin. He’s been sick with diarrhoea for a month.
“Dictor eats fish soup like other babies,” says Nyereka. “Sometimes it’s enough but sometimes we can’t get it, so we have soup without fish. We buy the fish, but it’s very expensive.”
They are receiving treatment for severe malnutrition in one ward of a virtually deserted hospital. Here, a year or so earlier, dozens of patients were shot and killed as soldiers rampaged through the wards.
The shooting in this area stopped six months ago, but nobody has confidence in the future.
Hundreds of land mines have been laid and need to be cleared.
Bentiu, once the second-biggest city in South Sudan, has been depopulated by warfare. It is strangely quiet and the signs of conflict are everywhere. Wrecks of rusting vehicles litter the roadside and derelict ambulances are riddled with bullet holes. The market was razed and the bones of burned brick houses are everywhere.
People did not plant their crops during the crisis, and the cattle were stolen, so there is very little to eat now apart from rations distributed at the nearby protection camp.
The rains have turned the grass green, but flooded the river with fecal matter, and babies already hungry are unable to resist bouts of potentially fatal diarrhoea. One child, Nyaboul, is being treated for edema, his body swollen with fluid as a response to starvation. It’s potentially fatal.
The mothers struggle to explain what is happening to them.
“The problem with the baby is diarrhoea, fever and sometimes she does not eat,” says Nyabok of her two-year-old. “We just know that the child has a painful body.”
The others nod. Diarrhoea and hunger are scourges that stalk them all.
In the South Sudanese rural economy, a man is not a man if he does not own cattle. They are milked, eaten, sold if necessary, and used to pay the bride price.
Near the hospital, six families cling together with their herds at night in what’s called a “cattle camp” – a kind of collective protection mechanism.
Peering through the early morning haze of burning dung, the families are armed with AK-47s and swords, and alert to the “raiders” who would steal their precious beasts. John Kuaing, their leader, says: “We all need to sit together, so that if we have a problem we can solve it together.”
At the camp, Peter Gatkurth’s bulls toss their elegant, curved horns, flicking the showy tassels that he’s used to decorate them. It’s a signal that, at 35, Gatkurth is looking for a wife.
But the crisis has radically diminished his options. This statuesque man in a black mesh singlet once had 900 head of cattle, he says. But a group of men attacked during the crisis, killing 20 cows and stealing most of the rest, leaving him a herd of only 30. He worries that it will not prove enough to attract to a mate.
“When it’s safe, when security is good, everyone will be able to go back to their village,” says Kuaing. “But nobody is in the village now. They stay here, together.”
The story is similar inside the rammed-earth walls of the massive UN camp.
The world has failed to respond generously to this African crisis, which (for differing reasons in each country) has put 20 million people at risk of starvation in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. Only about 20 per cent of what’s needed has flowed in from donors, both public and private, so the UN World Food Program simply does not have enough food.
“The food in the camp is not enough,” says Irene Abio, CARE’s nutrition officer in the Bentiu camp. People are given monthly food packages that last their families for only 20 days.
“But depending on the household size, sometimes it doesn’t even last that long. So there is a gap.”
The rations are also not suitable for feeding babies.
CARE’s clinic inside the camp is treating 400 children suffering severe malnutrition and 800 with moderate malnutrition. Nyanget Thak, 22, has been in the camp for two years. She watches as her daughter Nyalen Gatmai, 2, is laid flat on a wooden frame and measured. Nyalen has lived only weeks of her life outside the camp, and is in the moderate malnourishment group.
When government troops invaded their village in Southern Unity state, Nyanget and her husband fled to the river, hiding with their newborn in the water during the day and only crawling out at night.
It could be seen as a faint expression of hope that she is pregnant again with her second child.
Nyapina Gattang, 20, sits in her dark, oppressively hot hut. The sticks and grass walls are reinforced by a USAid tarpaulin. Her baby, Nyaguande Bol, 12 months, was born during the crisis.
Nyapina’s husband is in the camp too, and they are physically safe under UN guard, but she is desperately worried about how she’ll continue breastfeeding her child on such lean rations.
“The food we have been given … for our household is finished already. It’s a long time since we’ve received any, so we’re relying on food from the market,” she says.
“We would like to leave the camp, because the water we’re drinking here, sometimes it gives the children diarrhoea. But we can’t because the situation outside is not good.”
Her father was just sitting on a chair in their village one evening when two men came and “they just killed him straight away”.
“They saw him sitting down and then they shot him with a gun,” Nyapina says.
The rest of the village, pursued by the militia, fled to the river, leaving their clothes, the livestock, everything behind. She cannot count how many were shot and killed. She hid at the river, living on the bare nourishment of water lily roots.
A year ago, the family made its way, travelling only at night, to the Bentiu camp.
As the shooting has eased, some have left the oppressive confines of the UN facility. But most go no further than temporary villages a short walk away. They come back regularly to collect rations, or share with people inside. If the crisis flares again, they can always return.
Nyapina speaks for many when she says she cannot yet resume a normal life.
“As soon as the soldiers know that the harvest is ready, they will just come and chase us away and steal the food we have grown.”
Aid workers know that the longer people stay under UN protection, the more the danger grows of a psychological dependency on rations.
The answer, according to Abio, is “livelihood” programs – encouraging people to cultivate their own small gardens. But those programs are expensive and take time, and donations have been hard to come by.
CARE Australia says that since famine was declared in South Sudan in March, the agency has raised just $113,000 for its East Africa Hunger Crisis appeal. By comparison, during the last African famine six years ago it raised $1.68 million in just six months.
Eight large Australian aid agencies agree it’s been hard. They have raised just $2.5 million between them for the food emergencies in Africa and Yemen, much less than they expected and a fraction of what’s required.
Governments have also become more reluctant donors. The United States under Donald Trump seems poised to retreat from the world, and the Australian government has already done so in the name of budget repair.
Its total development funding to the sub-Saharan region has fallen from $490 million in 2011-12 to just $140 million this year (in 2017 dollars).
Cutting aid is seen in Australia as a victimless crime, but the money was mainly geared towards improving agricultural practices – an investment in fewer famines in future. It’s been partly replaced, in response to this crisis, with short-term humanitarian assistance, with Julie Bishop making a $68 million pledge for extra emergency funding this year.
For James Tut Riek and his daughter, the global response has simply not been enough.
“You see me here. I don’t even have clothes. I have been given two tins of sorghum, but they are not enough … We have no soup to eat with it,” he says.
“If the government can provide us a place to shelter, a place to stay, then, when peace comes we can go back to our homes. That will be better.”