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No famine, but still hungry in South Sudan

03 October 2014


Now too much rain: top: displace South Sudanese women queue for fresh water amid flooding in a camp in Bentiu

Now too much rain: top: displace South Sudanese women queue for fresh water amid flooding in a camp in Bentiu

THE world's newest nation, South Sudan, has avoided a famine on a technicality. But its people are still suffering from a lack of food and the results of a protracted political deadlock, aid workers have said.

Fighting between opposing factions led by the President and Vice-president broke out last December. To date, it has displaced 1.5 million civilians from their homes and livelihoods. Fears of a widespread famine have eased, however, after good rainfall in recent months.

Florence Mawanda, who works for Christian Aid in the capital, Juba, said on Tuesday that, despite the welcome rain, thousands of South Sudanese had not been able to plant crops, because they are refugees from the conflict.

"There is still a lot of military activity around the greater Upper Nile [region]," she said. "It's not possible to feed people out there. It is very challenging in the field and it needs to get resolved."

For a famine to be declared, at least 20 per cent of a population must have access to less than 2100 calories a day; acute malnutrition must exceed 30 per cent of children; and the death rate must exceed two deaths in 10,000 people a day.

Tearfund's head of humanitarian support, Oenone Chadburn, recently returned to the UK from South Sudan. The "wolves were at the door" for many people there, she said. "We don't believe this is a turn-around, it is only a respite.

"When the mass displacement happened last December, what was used up were the stocks of reserves people had. The fact that people have not been able to return to their land and cultivate this year has proved quite problematic."

Ms Chadburn said that Tearfund was running feeding centres in some of the areas still troubled by violence, but all the food had to be flown in because the market networks had broken down.

"We have seen a doubling of the numbers attending these feeding centres," she said.

"Alternative sources of employment have all dried up because of the conflict. But even if there was supplementary income, there is nothing in the markets anyway."

Last week, experts from the UN and aid agencies said that food security had begun to improve across South Sudan, but that it would worsen again if the political situation was not resolved.

Ms Mawanda said: "The fighting is concentrated in the north-east part of the country, although the tension between ethnic groups continues. We hope for the best. There is a chasm between those in government and those who are trying to eke out a living in South Sudan."

Ms Chadburn said that Tearfund was encouraged by the ongoing negotiations, and that only small pockets of fighting continued. Besides providing food, Tearfund is also supporting a small church outside Juba, which has established a camp for internal refugees. Ms Chadburn described how the conflict had affected one woman in the camp, 37-year-old Bibiana Akongo, after fighting broke out in her home town of Malakal on New Year's Eve.

"The fighting was so fierce, she was trapped in her home with eight children for four days. Her husband was a soldier, and he was killed. Then, armed men came into her house and shot her oldest son, who was 17, in front of the family. Her youngest, aged nine months, happened to get a shrapnel wound in her leg."

Ms Akongo managed to escape the slaughter on a UN evacuation flight, with just the clothes on her back. At the camp, she was given tarpaulin and corrugated iron to make a shelter, and a food kit to help her grow some crops to eat. Her child is still recovering from her injuries.

Ms Chadburn said that trauma such as this would take years to heal. "They have got decades of a civil war with Sudan to heal from, too. There were so many hopes and aspirations for a new South Sudan three years ago, but they are going through some growing pains."

Church leaders have been central in attempts to reconcile the warring factions in South Sudan, Ms Mawanda said. "They are telling people: 'It is time for development, we have had enough of war.'"

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