Escaping South Sudan's Violence Often Means Going Hungry

Jun 9, 2014
Originally published on June 9, 2014 8:00 am

Even in an undeveloped country like South Sudan, Ganyliel can feel like the middle of nowhere: a bunch of tiny islands surrounded by a gigantic swampy floodplain fed by the River Nile during rainy season. To get here, I took a helicopter from the capital, then ditched my sneakers for gumboots. I've waded out into water that's too deep for an SUV and too shallow for a speedboat.

I board a canoe made from a hollowed-out palm tree.

"This river is very protective to the people of Ganyliel," says my companion in the canoe, Lorjack Riak Lorjack. He fled to these swamps when fighting erupted in his hometown of Bentiu. He fears government soldiers and other armed groups who he says are systematically killing off people of his ethnic group, the Nuer.

He laughs to think of them following him here in a canoe of their own. "The whole army can't get into the boat," he says. "Attackers can shoot them." As if on cue, a young man floats past us in his own canoe with an AK-47 on his lap. The swampy terrain is a military equalizer: It means that a few vigilantes can protect tens of thousands of people. But there's a price.

Isolation Equals Hunger

In a malnutrition clinic, five women sit in the shade of a tree, listless children on their laps. Nya Buol, who doesn't know her age but looks in her mid-20s, has twin daughters. One cries jealously as the other sucks.

Nya Buol admits that her milk has dried up. During her 10-day trip here, she ate only wild fruit and water lilies. Now she has nothing aside from occasional airlifts of food from the United Nations. Buol says her children are 2 years old, but they're the size of infants, with impossibly thin ankles.

In Ganyliel, more than 30 percent of children younger than 5 are malnourished. The IRC clinic here has treated 1,800 cases so far.

Starving Near A River Of Fish

People who have nets can fish, but there's little to barter the fish for, since the bush traders that normally would have trekked into these swamps to sell flour and salt and bags of tea have been driven off by fighting.

Buol says she can't go back to Bentiu because it's still unsafe. She also has little to return to: Militias torched her house and stole her cattle, which in South Sudan are used like large currency. It's like not only losing all of your possessions but also having your bank accounts wiped clean.

Toby Lanzer, the humanitarian coordinator for the U.N., has come here to Ganyliel to assess the situation. "Markets have collapsed," he says. "So even if you might have something to trade or a bit of money, there's nothing to buy. Because the traders have gone."

The reason that Lanzer and the United Nations aren't crying famine just yet is because in South Sudan at this time of year, scarcity is normal. We're in what's euphemistically called the "lean months." But if people don't leave their hiding places, farmers don't plant and traders don't travel, the lean months could become lean years.The 3 million to 4 million people now estimated at risk of famine could rise to 7 million, which is about 70 percent of the country.

Nya Buol, the mother of the twins, says she'll remain in the swamps, hungry but safe, until a peace comes that she can believe in. She's heard horror stories about another danger: what happens to women captured by the opposing ethnic militias.


Gregory Warner is NPR's East Africa correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter @radiogrego.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In South Sudan, peace talks are resuming today. The two sides in that country's civil war are meeting next door in Ethiopia. They are trying to find some way to end an ethnic conflict that's now 6 months old. But to understand the impact of that war, you have to go, not just to the fighting, but to where tens of thousands are hiding. Gregory Warner NPR's East Africa correspondent takes us on a swampy journey up the Nile.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Even by the standards of an undeveloped country, like South Sudan, Ganyiel can feel like middle of nowhere. It's a bunch of tiny islands, surrounded by a gigantic flood plain fed by the River Nile. And just to get around the place, after taking a taking helicopter from the capital, you have to ditch your speakers for gum boots, wade out from the swampy shore into waters too deep for an SUV, too shallow for a speedboat. You board a canoe, made of a hollowed out palm tree. OK. So we're in a boat, and there's only about two inches between the top of the boat and the water. Oh man. Because of its isolation and its malarial waters, Ganyiel was sparsely populated until a civil war broke out in South Sudan. And this middle of nowhere became somewhere safe. Lorjock Riak - Lorjock is one of 40,000 new arrivals.

LORJOCK RIAK: This rive is also very protective to...

WARNER: This rive is protective?

RIAK: Yeah, to the people of Ganyiel.

WARNER: Lorojock came to the swamps to hide from government soldiers and other armed groups that he says are killing people from his ethnicity, the Nuer. But he allows a laugh when I ask him if the militias could follow him here, into the swamps.

RIAK: (Laughing) Yeah, yeah. Really, it's true. The whole army cannot get into the boards. The attackers can get themselves ready.

WARNER: As if on cue, when he mentions attackers, a young man floats past in his own canoe, an AK-47 on his lap. The tough terrain guarantees that a few tribal vigilantes, called the White Army, can defend this whole swap against assault. But the question is, for how long. Some 500 miles away from here, in the Ethiopian capital, the South Sudan peace talks are set to resume. But Lorojock says that people here have lost faith in politicians to end the conflict.

RIAK: Because they don't see any sign of peace between the government and the rebels. So it's better for them to stay in the bush.

WARNER: Even if they're starving?

RIAK: Even if they're starving.

WARNER: On shore, we find a malnutrition clinic, where a 2-year-old, Nya Dyet, cries for a turn at her mother's breast. It's spot taken by her twin sister. The toddlers are the size of infants, with impossibly thin ankles. Their mother, Nya Buol, speaks with a bowed head.

NYA BUOL: (Foreign language is spoken).

WARNER: Her milk is dry, she admits. She's not eaten this week. Except for occasional airlifts for food from the United Nations, she's been surviving on wild fruits and water lilies pulled from the swampy bed. Toby Lanzer is the military coordinator for the United Nations. He's come on this trip to Ganyiel to assess the situation.

TOBY LANZER: Markets have collapsed. So even if you might have something to trade or a little bit of money, there's nothing to buy because the traders have gone. You've not been able to move around with the livestock. You've not been able to move around and plant and cultivate.

WARNER: The reason, though, that Lanzer and the United Nations are not yet crying what they call the f word, famine, is because in South Sudan, at this time of year, scarcity is normal. We're in what's euphemistically called the lean months. It happens annually. But if people don't leave their hiding places, if farmers don't plant and traders don't travel, the lean months could become dire years. Are you think - you can go back to Bentiu?

BUOL: (Foreign language is spoken).

WARNER: Nya Buol says she has little to go back to. Her house has been burnt, her cattle stolen. And she's heard what happens to women captured by militias of the other ethnic groups. So she'll remain here, hungry but safe, until a peace comes that she can trust.

WARNER: Gregory Warner, NPR News, Juba.

GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.