The Future is Equal

“I had never seen anything like this” – Oxfam staffer in South Sudan

A civil war broke out in the African nation of South Sudan at the end of 2013, and since then, almost one third of people have been forced to flee their homes. The brutal and ongoing violence has caused wide-spread hunger. Millions are without access to food, and 100,000 are in a state of famine.

Corrie Sissons, from England, is Oxfam’s Food Security Coordinator based in South Sudan.

She explains, in a Gloucestershire Live article, why money for humanitarian aid is so desperately needed.

“Having worked on quite a few humanitarian emergencies you try to prepare yourself, but I had never seen anything like this. I visited a makeshift camp in Bojani, a remote village on the edge of the famine zone, which is surrounded by swampland and the closest people could get to safety in an area plagued by fighting. The tragedy of the conflict in South Sudan is that it is man-made. Many vulnerable people, who are out of reach of life-saving assistance due to the conflict, are paying the ultimate price.

People in South Sudan have visibly been pushed to the brink, surviving on what they can find to eat in the swamps. As is so often in a crisis, women and children are the worst affected. Many had seen their homes destroyed and crops burnt by fighters, before enduring days of wading through inhospitable swamps in a desperate attempt to find food for their children.

My team and I saw a trickle of people arriving throughout the day, emerging from the swamp with their clothes in tatters, filthy and without their shoes, dragging whatever possessions they could carry in balls of tarpaulin. With nothing to eat or drink on their journey but swamp water, people were sick and exhausted and looking traumatised.

Most of the children we saw looked severely malnourished and had no energy or spark, none of the usual cheeky smiles and laughter you get from small children, even in the most extreme situations. Some elderly people had made it to the camp but were so weak they were lying down and not able to move or even speak.

There was literally nothing to eat. No-one knew where the closest place was to buy food or essential items. No-one felt safe trying to find a market or someone selling food. I looked into people’s makeshift shelters and there were no food supplies at all. We had brought some beans and cooking oil from Juba (South Sudan’s capital), and salt, whatever we could get on the plane we had chartered.

All that the women had to prepare were water lily roots. Even though these plants which have limited nutritional value, were giving some of the children diarrhoea – because their stomachs couldn’t digest them – there was a sense that it gave the women a way of coping with the crisis, a sense of community. The women were preparing the lily roots together; collecting the bulbs, peeling and grinding them so that they and their children had something to physically eat.

I hadn’t expected it to be so quiet. None of the children or babies seemed to be crying. Some of the mothers with small babies told me they were no longer able to breast-feed. I found it really difficult knowing that at the end of the day I would get a meal, that the life I lead means I will probably never have to experience not knowing where my next meal would come from. And I felt embarrassed that we live in world where many have plenty, whilst others are pushed to the extremes of existence and eating wild plants just to survive. I worried about the people who were too weak to leave their villages or those stranded in areas too remote or too dangerous for aid agencies to reach. The situation is far worse in areas north of where we were, but with limited access Oxfam and other the humanitarian agencies remain in fear famine could spread – and fast.

As an emergency, life-saving measure Oxfam has been using small aircraft to fly in food packages to tide people over until the next UN World Food Programme airdrop, as more and more people arrive in the area. We are using canoes to send food to people in more remote areas. We’re also looking at how we can work with traders in markets to provide the most vulnerable with cash or vouchers and support the local economy too.

If we want to stop the famine spreading further, we need to act fast and be able to access even more resources. There is no time to waste.”

With your help, we can reach more people and save more lives.