Fergus Conmee is CAFOD‘s Head of Region for Africa. Here, he writes about how famine in parts of South Sudan has left people on the edge of starvation and how desperately help is needed to restore hope.
If you’ve heard about Sudan in the news recently, it was probably because President Trump included the country in his list of seven ‘banned’ countries. Yet in South Sudan, which split from Sudan in 2011, people are wondering when the focus of the international community might turn to their own – increasingly desperate – struggle.
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I was in South Sudan in February. One of the people I met is Santino Matwili. It was only after I held out my hand that it became clear that he was blind, a blindness caused by hunger.
Mr Matwili and his family were already facing a battle to survive due to drought. But it was the violence that has rocked South Sudan in recent years that forced them from their home. War has left them with nothing.
My encounter with Mr Matwili took place in Aidor, where many families who have been displaced from their homes have taken refuge. But even though Aidor enjoys a degree of peace, the level of hunger is palpable. People are so thin that their clothes hang from their bodies. A lack of food is the norm, and people survive by eating berries and wild fruit from the forest when other supplies run out. The difference this year is that those supplies have already been eaten, and there aren’t enough leaves and wild fruit left to last until the next crops are ready in six months’ time. Even then, the crops will only grow if the rain comes.
Help people to survive the drought in South Sudan
People pray that the rain will fall in time for the planting of crops. They would rather rely on this than on emergency supplies of food, and CAFOD’s partner, the Catholic Diocese of Rumbek, will help to plant crops with tools and seeds. But the planting is hard work and there is a great risk that the women who normally carry out this work will not have the strength to till the land – or be able to collect water, cook, wash or care for children.
A further blow to South Sudan’s economy is the falling price of oil – near enough the country’s only export good. I heard from Church partners and aid workers in Juba, the South Sudanese capital city, about how the hopes that followed independence at the start of the decade have been extinguished by the violence that has been visited upon the country by rival political factions – a war that descended into ethnic violence, forcing millions of people from their homes.
Initiatives to end the war have failed. Fighting returned to Juba in July 2016, forcing yet more thousands of people to flee. Three years earlier, violence in Jonglei had forced Monica Achol Deng from her home and led her to seek sanctuary in Juba. Yet now, she has had to flee the capital, walking hundreds of miles with her five children to Yirol. Monica can only feed her children once a day, using food she pricks from bushes in the forest. She and her family will have nothing once this food supply is exhausted.
Help families facing hunger in East Africa
In 1998, a famine in the region caused more than 70,000 deaths. People warn that the situation is as desperate as that famine, nearly two decades ago. For a famine to be declared, strict criteria must be met. Tragically, this is now the case.
People are already dying. The question now is whether the world will respond in enough time to avoid more loss of life.
We cannot afford to turn our backs on the people of South Sudan.
Donate to CAFOD’s East Africa Crisis Appeal