Fleeing the threat of famine in South Sudan

Fleeing the threat of famine in South Sudan

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What do you do when faced with the threat of starvation — stay put hoping the situation will improve? Or walk in search of safety and a stable food source? This is the terrible dilemma hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese like 34-year-old Nyarmon are currently facing.

“Every day there was fighting and people running away and now there is no food for my children. The whole village are suffering. I worry for my children,” Nyarmon says.

In February 2017, after years of recurrent fighting, famine was officially declared in parts of Unity State where Nyarmon lives. Nyarmon left her home in Koch County on March 6 and made the arduous seven-day journey with her five small children to the UN Peacekeeping base (POC) in Bentiu where some 120,000 people are currently sheltering from the ongoing conflict in South Sudan.

Until this point she had been walking to and from Bentiu town every few months to try and buy food for the family with money she begged from relatives. She would make the two-week round-trip carrying the sacks of sorghum and her 7-month-old baby Nyachiong. But this became unsustainable. “Sometimes soldiers would even take the food from me on my journey back,” Nyarmon says. “These daily and weekly movements searching for food have led my children to be malnourished."

The fact that her children were suffering was the final straw for Nyarmon and she made up her mind to move to the POC where at least there was safety, regular food distributions and access to health services for the family. The day after they arrived baby Nyachiong was enrolled in CARE’s outpatient therapeutic feeding centre with severe malnutrition and put on an eight week therapeutic feeding programme.

Hunger is forcing thousands like Nyarmon to flee their homes, seeking shelter in the already overcrowded UN bases. Families tell of days spent foraging in the bush looking for water lily leaves and wild dates in order to survive and risking attacks by the different armed groups working in the area. Others eat only once a day, or sometimes not at all. The declaration of famine was lifted in late spring, but the country is experiencing the most alarming levels of food insecurity in its history. In June and July, the number of people suffering from extreme hunger will hit 6 million, up from 4.9 million in January. That is half of the population in South Sudan – the highest number ever recorded in the country.

The majority of people in the POC would like to return home if possible. Many, like 31-year-old Nyapen Puok, tried to go back during the last harvesting season to cultivate their crops. “We harvested a small amount of food three months ago,” she says, “but then the soldiers came and looted the food and beat us…we kept hoping that things would improve where we were but they didn’t; we didn’t want to come to Bentiu."

But the perseverance of everyday South Sudanese like Nyapen is indefatigable. Despite the constant beatings, lootings and threat of attacks she, along with many others in the POC, is hoping to go back home again in April to try and plant during the rainy season. “What can we do? We need to eat,” she says.

This sentiment is echoed by Nyarmon, who is also desperately praying for a respite in the fighting to be able to farm again. "If the situation becomes better we will try to go back to cultivate in the next rainy season."


Nyarmon holds 7-month-old Nyachiong in the UN Protection of Civilians (POC) site in Bentiu. Nyachiong is enrolled on the CARE supplementary feeding program after being found severly malnourished because her mother can't produce breast milk due to lack of food. Credit: Lucy Beck/CARE