South Sudan: The hunger caused by bickering politicians

Nyakuak Duk with her two grandchildren in a feeding centre in Leer Image copyright Tristan McConnell

South Sudan returned to war in December but this time the fight was not against the old enemy, Khartoum, but between former allies on different sides of an ethnic divide. The fighting has disrupted the planting season and scattered livestock meaning that hunger is, again, taking hold.

You don't have to go much further than the airport in the capital Juba to see how far South Sudan has fallen in the six months since conflict restarted.

There are tanks and an anti-aircraft gun at the end of the runway.

Hulking Ilyushin-76 and Lockheed C-130 cargo planes painted with the logo of the World Food Programme are parked on the apron in between flights to airlift food to hungry parts of the country.

The new terminal, which was supposed to be ready to welcome guests celebrating the nation's independence four years ago, is still not completed and is already beginning to rust.

The array of white container buildings that makes up the nearby United Nations base has been augmented by a dirty scrum of tents and shelters housing 14,000 Nuer people who fled their homes when ethnic Dinka soldiers went on a murderous rampage in December.

The trigger for the conflict that is tearing at the seams of the nation was an alleged coup by the former vice-president Riek Machar against his long-standing rival, President Salva Kiir.

The personal, political battle quickly spiralled into ethnic conflict and spread.

It has been characterised by remarkable brutality: ethnic massacres, rape, the use of child soldiers and scant regard for the rights or protection of civilians. More than a million people have been uprooted and at least 10,000 killed.

If Juba tells you what has happened so far, the town of Leer, a 90-minute flight northwards over the endless swamps of the Sudd, shows you what's coming next.

I flew to Leer because there's no passable road from the south and because, although there is one from the north, it involves crossing the twitchy lines separating government and rebel soldiers.

Image copyright Tristan McConnell

The first sign something has gone badly wrong are the charred outlines of burned homes visible from the air. On the ground and close up, the scale of the damage is clearer.

The circular mud homes with thatch roofs that most families live in are razed to the ground, livestock is driven away and grain stores looted. Even the fences have been cut down and carried off.

During the fighting in late January and February the entire population fled into nearby swamps.

Sitting on a thin mattress outside Leer's partially burned and entirely looted hospital I met Nyachane Nien, a slender 17-year-old in a threadbare black vest.

When the war reached her home she ran, spending weeks hiding in waist-deep water during the day, clutching her nine-month-old son Thak.

Image copyright Tristan McConnell

As night fell she ventured onto dry land to sleep. They survived, but barely, eating the roots of water lilies and drinking from the river. Sometimes they got sick, often they had diarrhoea. She was hungry constantly, and so was Thak.

The boy quickly lost weight and doctors in Leer told me he was suffering from severe acute malnutrition. He is a wide-eyed boy with an old man's face, a beaded bracelet around his skinny wrist.

The baseball T-shirt he wears is many sizes too big for him and swamps his emaciated body. In just a few months Thak had gone from being robust and happy to listless with a rasping cough that makes him cry out.

The fighting has subsided for now. With the onset of the rainy season battle lines are unlikely to shift and so the people of Leer are returning to their destroyed homes.

But it is too late to plant crops, and in any case the seeds they might have planted were burned or stolen. So there will be no harvest this year.

Image copyright Tristan McConnell

They are hungry now. Soon they will be starving.

International aid agencies are doing what they can - dropping pallets of food from the sky and flying in plane loads of high protein paste that can keep a malnourished child from death but it isn't and won't be enough.

The UN predicts that 50,000 will likely die in the months to come as famine returns to parts of South Sudan. The number killed in six months of civil war will look insignificant compared with those who will die from lack of food and disease.

All famines are man-made, to a degree, but this one is unusual because there are no climatic reasons at all. Last year's harvest was above average and rainfall has been good.

The only reason famine is coming to South Sudan is because of the fighting, and the destruction, displacement and disruption of markets it has wrought.

And yet the political leaders on both sides show little serious interest in ending the conflict and lessening the suffering of the people they pretend to lead and ought to serve.

Life is seldom easy in South Sudan, but the war they started is making it impossible.

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