Thursday 22 February 2018

South Sudan in crisis: 'Six years on from independence, people are surviving on water lillies'

Elderly people awaiting aid in Nyal, South Sudan
Elderly people awaiting aid in Nyal, South Sudan

Colm Byrne in South Sudan

UNDER scorching sun, I made several journeys this week in South Sudan aboard a canoe, an effective form of transportation in vast swathes of a country the size of France but with very few paved roads.

The canoe I travelled on was fibreglass. Traditionally canoes here are carved from old palm trees, ones that have been allowed to grow for many years. Local people spot when a tree is ready. The tree is cut down, its crown and roots chopped off, and the insides of the trunk removed to make it hollow. Then the now hollow trunk is covered in dry grass and set on fire, and from the ashes the canoe appears. They say it can take almost a week to carve a good canoe.

Canoes transport vulnerable people to emergency aid and medical assistance
Canoes transport vulnerable people to emergency aid and medical assistance

Our canoe makes its way through the vast swamp shouldering Nyal town, Panyijar County, its outside channels broad and shallow. The inside canals are long and flow idly in their course, twisting in all directions, collecting into the enormous marshlands of Unity State.

The ground is dry and dusty, bearing no life but the short thin specks of grass, yellowing under the relentless glare of the sun. A once small quiet town with ancient palm trees and scattered thatched houses, Nyal is now a vibrant hub of activity. Extended fighting has forced people to seek refuge in the town and the islands surrounding it.

This was not the vista imagined exactly six years ago this weekend when on July 9th 2011 South Sudan became the world’s newest country, born amid much hope and optimism for a fresh start following years of civil war with Sudan. Gaining independence, South Sudan was created from the 10 southern-most states of Sudan. Today this young country faces a catastrophic humanitarian crisis.

A power crisis between President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar, which began in December 2013, has escalated and spiralled into a national, political and ethnic conflict. Civilians have been attacked, and schools and hospitals have been looted and burned. Tens of thousands of people have been killed.

Colm aboard one of the canoes made possible by Irish support
Colm aboard one of the canoes made possible by Irish support

As they flee their homes in fear, people have left behind their livelihoods and often get stranded in places where there aren’t enough facilities to support tens of thousands of new arrivals. Many retreat to very isolated areas like the swamp we’re travelling through, keeping themselves far away from fighting, but also cut off from aid.

The canoe brings us from Nyal to these remote islands where the price of relative safety can mean living in cramped conditions and eating water lilies and the occasional fish, and with no clean water or sanitation.

Nyariek, a member of Oxfam’s protection team in Nyal, is a regular traveller to these islands. “Some are still hidden in the swamps, too afraid to come out,” she says. “Those that braved the journey have no choice but to ask organisations like Oxfam for help. Those that were left behind, with no food, are hopeful that their family members will return with food.”

One of those operating a canoe here is Elizabeth. The left hand side of her green high-vis bears the logo of our government’s Irish Aid programme, which has supported Oxfam’s free canoe transportation programme in Nyal.

Thanks to the people of Ireland, canoes like Elizabeth’s offer a vital lifeline – bringing aid to those people unable to leave the islands and providing transport to vulnerable groups like older people, children, those with disability or seeking medical treatment to Nyal where they can get help. They are piloted by local people who know these waterways inside out, allowing them to play a leading role in delivering desperately needed humanitarian assistance to their communities.

Following the death of her husband last year, Elizabeth has been forced to be both father and mother to the children, left with the overwhelming responsibility of being the sole breadwinner in a time of war and uncertainty. Earning an income from the canoes has been a lifeline as she waits to cultivate her land.

“The attack took place at four in the afternoon in Guak,” she says. “The soldiers took everything we had; cows, beds, chairs, and even mosquito nets. Luckily we had ran to the islands before as we had been warned about the attack.”

Elizabeth, like the people I’ve met in South Sudan over the years, is an inspiration. Coping with adversity and challenge, she looks to the future.

“I am strong and have travelled to many islands… in the swamp. I have been called when there is an emergency and someone needs to go to hospital, and also during the food distribution when many people need help transporting the food they received to far areas.

“I have hope for my children to go back to school so that they can have a better life than what we are facing now. One without war, hunger and loss.”

In total 3.8 million people have fled their homes: two million are displaced within the country, while 1.9 million have fled to neighbouring countries, mainly Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda. An average of 2,000 people a day are crossing into Uganda where the Bidi Bidi refugee camp close to the South Sudanese border is now the largest refugee settlement in the world. It opened less than a year ago.

Back in February, famine was declared in parts of the country; 100,000 people were facing famine, and one million more were on the brink. Since then Oxfam and other humanitarian organisations have raced to respond – aid from Ireland and elsewhere has made a really important difference: we have helped prevent famine from spreading. For now.

But hunger hasn’t stopped so there is no room for complacency: the food crisis continues to spread. 25,000 people in the areas previously declared in famine and most at risk are still facing catastrophic levels of hunger. They have run out of ways to cope and survive, meaning their lives depend on aid. Six million people are severely hungry and in need of urgent assistance.

The rainy season which is just starting here brings huge risk of water borne diseases like cholera which is already taking hold across the country. Such diseases often causes diarrhoea, meaning those affected can’t absorb the little food they have access to and quickly become dehydrated. The rains mean people can start planting, but it will be months until crops produce food and can be harvested.

While immediate help to fight hunger is needed now, what the people of South Sudan ultimately need is peace. The international community needs to redouble its efforts to bring all warring parties to the negotiating table and to peacefully end their differences.

We may have been able to prevent famine from spreading, but this does not mean we should lower our guard: action in the next few months is crucial if we want to avoid the worst.

For more information visit Oxfam Ireland

Colm Byrne is Oxfam Ireland’s Humanitarian Manager

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