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Dublin: 13 °C Sunday 21 December, 2014

Opinion: After a day submerged in a river, the family escaped the men who wanted them dead

The crisis in South Sudan is now at a tipping point – we cannot afford to wait. The history books will pass their judgement on how we now react.

Colm Byrne

LAST WEEK AT Strokestown’s Famine Commemoration, an Taoiseach Enda Kenny paid tribute to the empathy of Irish people with those suffering the effects of hunger in the world today, adding: “In remembering our past, we must not lose sight of our present”.

South Sudan – the world’s newest and poorest country equal in size to France – has experienced just three years of independence and already the seeds of hope sown then have turned to despair in the aftermath of violence that erupted last December.

It is disappointing that while many nations pushed for and supported South Sudan’s independence from Sudan, little such commitment is now forthcoming from the wider international community in the form of aid . Ireland is one of a small handful of countries who are proving to be the exception to the rule when, despite devastating reports of hunger and violence, the UN humanitarian appeal for South Sudan is currently only 40% funded.

Confronted by armed men who wanted them dead

Some 7 million people in South Sudan, almost two thirds of the population, do not have enough to eat right now. At least 4.9 million of these – equivalent to the Republic of Ireland’s population – are in need of humanitarian assistance. Furthermore, over 1.3 million people have been forced to flee their homes including some 300,000 to surrounding countries. As is often the case, it is the poorest who are hardest hit amd amongst them children and elderly who are most vulnerable.

Martha Nyandit and her children are amongst the thousands of people who have fled several rounds of violent and bloody fighting in and around the town of Bor in Jonglei state. With gunshots ringing through the night, the family fled from their home and crossed the river Nile to an island where they thought they would be safe, only to find themselves confronted again by armed men who wanted them dead.

Martha, whose husband, a soldier in the South Sudanese government army called into action and killed in the town of Bor in January this year, and her children, had no place to hide but in the river itself. The water came up to her chest as she carried one child on her back, the baby around her neck and a third floating on her arm. She had to force her four-year-old boy to stay silent.

After a day spent submerged in the water, they managed to make their way to Mingkaman camp, where they now live among thousands of displaced families who depend on distributions of food and water to stay alive.

Opinion: After a day submerged in a river, the family escaped the men who wanted them dead
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  • Crisis

    Martha Nyandit (42), a mother of six, waits for a food distribution at Mingkaman. “When there’s no food I ask for a loan or I beg from my neighbours who have fewer children and so might have some of their ration leftover. Sometimes I feel so weak [from hunger] I worry I will not have enough milk for the baby. Sometimes I’m so weak I feel like I’m going to collapse; I can’t see when I stand up.” Oxfam is distributing food to 95,000 people a month in Mingkaman county. The distribution contains enough food to feed an average family for one month, with a typical household consisting of six people. Every family receives two 50kg bags of sorghum grain, 10.5 kg of lentils and 7 litres of oil. Pablo Tosco/OxfamSource: Pablo Tosco/ Oxfam
  • Crisis

    Children rest in is an informal settlement called Mingkaman where poorly built makeshift shelters are scattered up and down the river Nile. Photo: Pablo Tosco/OxfamSource: Pablo Tosco/ Oxfam
  • Crisis

    Alfred is member of the camp committee at the UN House camp on the outskirts of Juba. “The one good thing I can say came from this situation is that fact that we all found each other. We have learnt from one another and this has made us humble and grateful to be alive. We are now friends and will hopefully keep being friends when we get back into the world. Here, there is no wealth, no class – we share everything and rely on each other for hope and survival. We have a new understanding of ourselves because we have lost everything and will hopefully rebuild it together.” Photo: Mackenzie Knowles Coursin/OxfamSource: Mackenzie Knowles Coursin/Oxfam
  • Crisis

    Baby Chol sleeps in the tent the UN mission in Rumbek has given his family, and roughly 90 other Nuers who have taken up shelter in the site. Photo: Mackenzie Knowles Coursin/OxfamSource: Mackenzie Knowles Coursin/Oxfam

Crisis at tipping point

This crisis, which receives scant attention from the world’s media, is now at a tipping point. between on the one hand a realisation of the hope and opportunity that independence brought, and on the other a deepening and widening of divisions that have brought such horrific bloodshed in recent months. It’s a question of saving lives now, or letting catastrophe take hold. We either act now or millions will suffer

A severely malnourished child is nine times more likely to die without treatment than a well-nourished one and in some states of South Sudan the number of malnourished children has doubled in the space of one year.

A current if not altogether respected cessation of hostilities in the conflict has provided a valuable window of opportunity for a rapid escalation of the aid effort before seasonal rains hamper access to those most in need. Seeds and tools provided now during this period will permit land to be cultivated and seeds to be sown so there will at least be a harvest this year.

The history books will pass their judgement

But the time to act is now. Once the rains start, organisations like Oxfam face a mammoth task of getting massive levels of aid to people at the worst time of the year when the weather makes many areas hard to reach and turn roads into rivers of mud.

Ahead of Tuesday’s (20 May) Donor Conference in Oslo, governments must follow Ireland’s lead in committing their fair share in humanitarian assistance
We need a massive and rapid global surge in aid to prevent catastrophic levels of hunger.

Until then, this rapidly worsening crisis threatens to become an even larger catastrophe. The history books will pass their judgement. We cannot afford to wait, we cannot afford to fail.

Colm Byrne, Oxfam Ireland’s Humanitarian and Advocacy Manager, is currently in South Sudan. 

Opinion: I see families waiting helplessly as certain famine approaches

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