Six years ago, while I was working in the small South Sudanese town of Wunrok, I had the opportunity to speak with two of Sudan’s ‘Lost Boys’.
In the late 1980s, these boys, along with 20,000 more, had been forced to flee their homeland unaccompanied as civil war raged remorselessly around them. One headed for Ethiopia to the east; the other decided to take his chances in Uganda to the south.
They walked for weeks across a hazardous, war-ravaged country. Their ultimate aim was safety and a new life. They were lucky; they survived. Many didn’t make it.
By December 2010, they had returned as young men to the land of their birth in the belief that a better future for their homeland could at last be realised. They were optimistic and educated. When I spoke to them, they had found work with GOAL as clinical workers in the town’s only health facility.
Within weeks, in early January 2011, the nation of South Sudan had announced itself to the world. No less than 99 per cent of its population voted in favour of independence. Six months later, that independence became a reality with the formal secession of the country from its bitter rival to the north.
The world lined up to welcome its 193rd member. Leaders talked about trade deals around the country’s abundant oil reserves, and offered aid packages to support its war-wearied population. People who had left South Sudan during the war returned, bringing with them the education, skills and energy that they hoped would carry the new nation forward.
Many of the ‘Lost Boys’, including my two colleagues, had already returned. More followed.
Ultimately, this initial optimism was destroyed. The last six years has seen the inexorable decline of the world’s newest country, riven by civil conflict and escalating inhumanity.
It culminated in last month’s famine declaration, the first recorded anywhere on the planet since 2011.
As of now, 100,000 people are facing imminent starvation in two counties with a further one million people on the brink of famine. In total, almost five million people are estimated to be in need of humanitarian food assistance across the nation, a number set to increase given the onset of the annual inter-harvest lean period.
Whereas it is undeniable that climate-related incidents such as the 2016 El Niño drought have had a detrimental effect on food production, man-made factors such as conflict and mass displacement remain the predominant drivers of South Sudan’s acute food insecurity.
One only has to look at the location of the famine to emphasise this point. Unity State is opposition territory, an area where some of the fiercest fighting in the country occurs.
This and other facts raise troublesome ethical questions about providing aid to a country so seemingly intent on not helping itself, particularly given hardships at home in Ireland. The cacophony of desperate voices from places in obvious and dire need of humanitarian help can become hard to distinguish over time and we question why, despite generations of generosity and aid, these problems have not been resolved.
These are reasonable questions in an unreasonable age. The truth is that humans are more often than not at the heart of their greatest triumphs and most bitter failures. Though human factors such as greed, ambition and tribalism may drive the relatively small number of people who are perpetrating the conflict in places like South Sudan and Syria, the moral requirement to assist the millions of affected, women and children should not be lessened.
Despite what we have witnessed over the past six years in Syria and South Sudan, the obligation to assist is even more pressing now, following the warning by the UN in recent days that 20 million people face starvation and famine across four countries, including South Sudan.
Ireland, to its credit, has always reacted with enormous generosity to crises around the world. This is possibly due to our own not too distant recollection of conflict and famine. Ultimately though, in an increasing populous world, the ecosystem of which is decreasingly capable of sustaining us, we must be prepared to react with vigour and humanity where human life is threatened on such a huge scale, while simultaneously seeking the longer-term solutions required for the survival of our species.
In the case of South Sudan, in the face of ongoing and preventable loss of life to the horror of starvation, there is little choice but to react immediately to alleviate this famine and prevent its potentially dramatic escalation.
Aid agencies such as GOAL, who have been working in South Sudan since the early 1980s, have a significant health and nutrition infrastructure in place, and teams of dedicated international and local humanitarians ready and capable of helping.
Like the two clinical staff I met back in 2010, these teams are predominately made up of hundreds of South Sudanese, those who remained in the country or have subsequently returned home following forced displacement to serve their own people.
Over the longer term, it is these dedicated and capable, ordinary Southern Sudanese people who we must empower to create peace and lead their people if the world’s newest nation is ever to offer them the future they seek and deserve.