Hungry and Hiding from War Deep in South Sudan’s Swamps

By Crystal Wells, Roving Communications Officer

South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation, has spent more time at war than it has at peace. What started as a rivalry between the president and the former vice president spiraled into an all-out civil war that has shown no limits in its disregard for human life and has devoured whatever nascent economic and development gains South Sudan made in its young life.

Nearly four million people have been forced to flee their homes. The war has also prevented people from planting their crops and sent the South Sudanese pound into freefall, leaving six million South Sudanese without enough to eat.

In February, famine — a technical term reserved for only the gravest of circumstances when malnutrition and death is exceptionally widespread — was declared in Leer and Mayendit, two counties that have been flashpoints in the war. While famine conditions have subsided, thanks to humanitarian assistance, 45,000 are facing potentially catastrophic food insecurity in Leer, Koch, and Mayendit counties in Unity and Ayod in Jonglei. At the same time, 1.7 million people are living on the brink of famine, as the war has created very fertile ground for the famine to spread.

Thousands are fleeing fighting and famine in Leer and Mayendit counties to the relative safety of islands deep in the Sudd, a vast swamp in the heart of South Sudan. International Medical Corps’ famine response team are traveling by canoe to these islands to deliver life-saving medical care and treatment for malnutrition.

Families arrive on the islands with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Many are settling under palm trees and whatever shade they can find and make. Their suffering will soon be compounded by the rains, which will start this month and run into the fall.

Though people feel relatively safer on the islands, food is still a constant struggle. They are surviving on mostly “famine foods,” like water lily roots, which they forage from the waters of the Sudd and then dry in the sun.

The water lily roots have little nutritional value, while diarrhea from a lack of safe drinking water and poor sanitation is common. This leaves people — children in particular — at risk of falling prey to malnutrition.

Rhoda Nyapiling, a mother of four, arrived in Majiok island on April 19th after traveling for seven days with her children, moving island to island, to escape fighting near Leer. The family has been mostly living off of water lilies and lacks everything, from food and clean water to medical care and basic shelter materials.

International Medical Corps nutritionist Ponyo Salumu measures a child’s mid-upper arm circumference — one of the ways to determine if a child is malnourished — in Majiok island. The team is working to deliver medical care and nutrition services to people living in Majiok and the surrounding islands by canoe.

Maria Nyamon, a mother of four, left Leer a long time ago for an island called Kok. Fighting would sometimes spill over onto the island. There was little or nothing to eat. They decided to travel to another part of the Sudd, traveling days by canoe to reach Nyoat island, where today they are sleeping under trees. Food is still a struggle and they do not have even basic shelter materials.

International Medical Corps famine emergency response team members Dr. Guillain Lwesso Mununga and nutritionist Ponyo Salumu leave Majiok island back to Nyal, the nearest mainland town in opposition-held Panyijar county.

In Nyal, International Medical Corps provides primary health care and treatment for malnutrition at two locations. Many of the people in Nyal are also internally displaced from Leer and Mayendit counties and are arriving to the town malnourished and in need of assistance. Here, mothers wait with their children to see the International Medical Corps nutrition team.

Four-year-old Nyalada Mamuol Kuon is receiving treatment for severe acute malnutrition from International Medical Corps in Nyal. Fighting forced Nyalada and her grandmother to make a five-day trek, mostly through the night, from Mayendit county to Nyal. Her grandmother says that have mostly been living off of water lilies.

Malnourished children are given Plumpy’Nut, a peanut-based paste that is ready-to-eat and has the right composition of nutrients to help a child recover. With the right nutrition and regular check-ups, like Plumpy’Nut, most children will gain weight and recover. Tragically, not all children in South Sudan have that chance because they are not accessible to aid organizations. International Medical Corps is expanding its famine response programs into some of the hardest-hit areas to make sure more children get the life-saving care they need.

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