The threat of famine in South Sudan is real, and civilians are already risking rape, abduction, and murder in their search for food.
By Sterling Carter
Leer, South Sudan –
Here, humanitarians are witnessing the shadows of a looming famine. Leer, home of opposition leader Riek Machar, saw heavy fighting in February and government control through mid-April, when opposition forces 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 persons who have fled continuing violence around the state capital, Bentiu. Schools, churches, and health clinics have similarly been occupied. Any available space becomes refuge against the heavy rains that started early and will continue through September.
These internally displaced persons bring nothing with them, as they were forced to flee their homes during the conflict. 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, their main foodstuff, and wait until the harvest. In the meantime they rely on wild foods to supplement a meager diet.
Malnutrition typically increases in the hunger season, but not at the current levels. 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 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 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. This was during a different war, with a similar outcome.
As the grain disappears, the Nuer who inhabit Leer have been forced to slaughter their herds of cattle; which are signs 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 until tomorrow. When our translator, John, 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 normal.
This grain, however, has been bought with substantial risk. Women walk for 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 armed actors who are operating in the area. The threat has become so great that many now hire elderly women to make the journey for them, believing it less likely that these matriarchs will face rape and/or abduction.
This belief seems somewhat supported by the internally displaced persons themselves. One elderly woman, Martha*, spoke of her harrying flight from Bentiu shortly after the government took 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 which are her grandchildren. She came to Leer because she heard it was safe, but now she lives on the margins of society. She missed out on a recent food distribution – pushed away by young men fighting over half rations.
Tragically, 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 prevented them from determining a cause of death, whether from violence, starvation, or thirst.
In Leer, they have found relative safety, but their personal security is still 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 United Nations and other agencies have pledged support. However, the logistical challenges will be immense when the rains set in and airstrips become soft and unusable with mud.
Already, alarms are going off in international media that without an end to the fighting, South Sudan will face one of the worst famines in recent memory. But for those who have found refuge in Leer, these alarms are no longer a warning, they are a reality.
* For people like Martha’s family members, Nonviolent Peaceforce is keeping records of the extra-judicial killing and abduction. Their case was reported in the June 2014 Capabilities and Vulnerabilities Report for Leer Town, Unity State, completed by Nonviolent Peacefore. This has been widely distributed to the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It is our recommendation that as humanitarian actors move forward on a response in Leer, that there should be a strong focus on combining humanitarian relief and protection efforts.