In March 2017, a drought in east Africa, combined with terrible violence between the government and rebels, had created a famine in South Sudan. One of CAFOD’s staff based in the country, Emergency Programme Manager Michael O’Riordan, visited people in March to give out food. At that time he reflected on the emotion and power of the experience.
A haunting refrain
When I was leaving Yirol in central South Sudan following a food distribution, an elderly gentleman in his late 60s kept asking why he wasn’t on the list to receive food. He couldn’t work and therefore couldn’t earn a living. Clearly disabled and using a walking stick, he kept pleading “why am I not deserving?”.
This haunting refrain has echoed in my ears ever since. It is not that he is not deserving; we just don’t have enough for everyone.
Having returned to this community after just a few months since the last food distribution, we found a bad situation far worse than we could have imagined. Although we are responding as best we can, it is beyond our ability to meet all needs.
We don’t have enough
I have witnessed several famines and it is never easy to turn someone away. The only way to deal with this situation is to tell people the truth; to tell them we don’t have enough and work with them, as a community, to identify who is most in need and should, therefore, receive aid.
CAFOD and our Irish sister agency, Trocaire, are working together, as the only agencies providing food in Yirol. We are working alongside a number of other agencies, each focusing on their own expertise by providing essentials like shelter, health and medical facilities, to meet the need. This coordinated approach is so integral to meeting the needs in the most efficient way, but there is still so much more to be done.
To date, CAFOD’s local Caritas partners have reached more than 24,000 people in this area with food supplies, but it’s just a drop in the ocean. The need is so great.
In this region, many people have fled from other areas of the country, such as Unity State, where the situation is even worse. Where famine and conflict have collided in catastrophic proportions.
The heartbreak of famine
Across parts of South Sudan, famine was taking hold.
In Yirol, where our main food distribution programme is, the effects of famine were more obvious. In the capital city Juba, the same hunger exists – but people wear western clothes that conceal their skeletal frames. However, in Yirol, people look very thin and gaunt. Their faces are sallow. People are walking slowly everywhere; even children are moving slowly – they do not have any energy because of lack of food.
It is heartbreaking.
Out of desperation, people are going to the forest to find wild vegetables and leaves. Women are boiling up leaves so they have food to give to their children. It is edible in the sense it won’t kill you but it has minimal nutritional value.
Thanks to aid efforts, famine has since been pushed back, but people are still facing the prospect of starvation and hunger, as fighting in South Sudan has made it so hard to get to what food is available.
Expensive food and international aid
The markets, which would usually be bright with fruit and vegetables at this time of year, have next to nothing available. And what little is available, is out the reach of ordinary people because of sky-rocketing prices.
There is no choice but to import food, which is costly both in terms of transportation, tax, and the most precious thing of all: time.
This is why we need international aid from charities like CAFOD – so that people can have enough to eat.
The Church shines through
We are working through the local Catholic Church and their diocesan networks to respond to the need. Their partnership has been key. They are widely respected by the community because they treat every single person with dignity, and this commitment to the people shines through. This same welcome and respect is shown to us which is truly humbling.
Right now, food is undoubtedly our greatest need, closely followed by clean water, to prevent vulnerable communities from getting sick. This is why all our emergency projects are combined food, water and hygiene projects.
Humanitarian aid is more than food
It is clear from my last visit to Yirol the situation for families has rapidly deteriorated – put simply, people have become much hungrier. Yet these very same families I meet again, despite their hunger, now have a sense of hope. Because we had responded to their basic needs, we have built up trust, which in turn opens up the possibility of hope.
And here lies the heart of the matter; humanitarian aid – help you give when you donate to CAFOD – is more than food. It is a sign of hope. It is a sign someone is watching and listening to what they are saying. It is a sign someone cares, that they are not forgotten.
The people of South Sudan are longing for peace and security. To return to a sense of normality. To return to their homes. For their children to return to school. To go back to farming their land….
Prayers for South Sudan
But the truth is that conflict is the main barrier to progress. South Sudan is a beautifully fertile land naturally irrigated by the white River Nile, even with the difficulties brought by the current drought. It is simply just not safe for people to tend to their land due to the violence.
July 2017 marks six years since South Sudan became the world’s newest nation. My prayer for the world’s newest country is that peace will be restored to the land and that communities will be allowed to flourish once again.
Help us turn heartbreak into hope for people caught up in famines and conflict.
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