Helen Szoke in South Sudan: Hope in a time of hunger

Aid & development, Emergencies, In the field article written on the 20 May 2017

As I reflect on the recent week I spent in South Sudan, I am deeply saddened at visiting a country full of lovely, kind, generous and caring people who are trying to survive under appalling conditions – war and the threat of famine.

It is heartbreaking to see a country that could be rich and rewarding to live in, to be in such turmoil. It is volatile, of more concern unpredictable, and there does not seem to be any political will to build coalitions to achieve the peace that is so desperately needed.

The capital Juba itself, which is bordered by the majestic White Nile River is oppressively hot and dusty, and a palpabale tension hangs in the air. Buildings are gated and surrounded by high walls topped with barbed wire, photography is generally prohibited and Oxfam staff are on strict security restrictions in terms of curfews and travel.

The country’s economy, almost entirely reliant on oil sales, is in tatters. At the time we were there inflation was around 350%.

The Oxfam team on the ground is quite large, with ten field offices in different states running a huge range of important programs in very difficult circumstances.

On our first day in Juba, we saw Oxfam staff loading a huge truck being loaded with food and other aid supplies – the smell of the dried fish was overpowering. By the next morning it had left for the former Jonglei state, where more than 100,000 people had fled after fighting reached their towns and villages.

Truck loaded with food and aid

An Oxfam truck is packed dried fish, food and other emergency provisions for distribution to people displaced in South Sudan.
Photo: Dylan Quinnell / OxfamAUS

We then flew north to Unity State, over the amazing and seemingly endless Sudd Swamp, the biggest in the world, before a very bumpy landing on a dirt strip beside the town of Nyal.

Nyal is just south of the area declared to be in famine in February this year, and is itself on the verge. Being surrounded by the swamp somewhat shelters its 30,000 residents from the conflict but it also means it is inundated with fleeing civilians who used to live on the other side of the swamp in famine and conflict hit Leer and Mayendit Counties.

Often, the only way to get aid in is by air, so Oxfam is working with communities to help them support themselves, for example with fishing kits or by starting community gardens.

It was here that I met Mary Manuai*, a strong and resilient woman and mother who wants what’s best for her children. But like so many others in South Sudan she is struggling because of the war.

Fighting forced Mary (right) and her husband to flee the town of Mayendit in the north with their seven children while she was nine months pregnant.
Photo: Dylan Quinnell / OxfamAUS

Along with other fleeing families they walked through the Sudd Swamp for nine days, dragging their young children and few belongings on tarpaulins, to reach the relative safety of Nyal.

Mary was forced to give birth to her daughter in the swamps on the way. “Her name is Nyamuch – it means ‘born in crisis’,” she told us.

Other women told me how their toe nails fell off because they were in the water for such a long time. And, as if that isn’t all hard enough, they were robbed by armed men on the long journey and had their few belongings stolen.

Oxfam Chief Executive Helen Szoke visits the Oxfam-funded canoe program, which evacuates people from hiding in the swamps surroudning Nyal.
Photo: Dylan Quinnell / OxfamAUS

But, true to the immense generosity of the South Sudanese that we met, Mary and 16 other families had been given some land to live on by a generous local family who were struggling to provide for themselves. We always hear about the divisive nature of South Sudan’s war, but there’s nowhere in the world where community means more.

With your generous support and aid from the Australian Government, Oxfam is helping Mary and many others in Nyal by fixing and building local wells and toilets toilets – critical to keeping disease and resulting malnutrition at bay. We’re also helping people to grow remarkably productive food gardens and a running a canoe program that helps ferry hungry people living on islands in the swamp to aid and food distributions in Nyal.

As with every year since the war started, this July – the peak of South Sudan’s lean season – is set to see hunger on an unprecedented scale. Your support for the people of South Sudan has never been more appreciated – or more needed.

Note: As we were leaving Nyal we heard word that villages two days away had been attacked, suggesting that the situation was going to continue be unsettled. It was evident that there were very few young men in the village.

*Names changed to protect identity.

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