Famine is the biggest single crisis facing our planet right now. Across East Africa, 16 million people face starvation. Men, women and children are dying, every day. It’s bigger than any food shortage we’ve ever seen before. It’s so vast a problem that it’s almost hard to know how to tackle it.
South Sudan’s famine has conflict at its very heart. A bitter civil war that’s raged since 2013 sends deadly ripples across the country. I walked around a village, once a thriving community with homes, a school, a soul. But it had been attacked, the people were chased away, and their crops withered and died. That’s where the hunger comes from. If you can’t stay in one place, you can’t grow food to feed your family. Any kind of sustainable life is impossible.
Wherever you go, there’s fear. As a mum showed me the small, sticky dish of sorghum porridge her family would eat that day, five cows loomed over us in the gloom of her dark hut. Cattle are precious in these tough times, and even if there’s barely room to move, they’re kept inside so they can’t be looted. Well-stripped husks of maize hang from the wall, and a few mangoes bought from a child who’s shinned up a tree to search the branches. They’re small and hard, cut down long before they turn ripe and tasty in order to feed a constant hunger.
The fighting has driven thousands of people into protection camps run by the United Nations. Surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by armed peacekeeping soldiers, they’re so big they’ve turned into tented cities. At Bentiu in the north, more than a hundred thousand shelter. That makes it the second-biggest population centre in the whole country. Conditions are tough there, but at least there’s a constant source of food handouts. In the bush, anything from bad weather to armed troops blocking the road can stop vital deliveries from reaching the people who so badly need them.
At the camp hospital, mothers queue to have their babies weighed. A tape is placed around their thin, fragile arms – if it’s red – the child is severely malnourished, and treatment starts straight away. Packets of peanut paste, mixed with oil and milk, are squeezed straight into their mouths. It’s simple, but it saves lives.
The children make the best of what they can find. It’s hard not to smile at grinning girls dancing and twirling in tasseled skirts they’ve made themselves from old food aid bags, or boys stamping out a tune with home-made tin can instruments tied to their legs. They revel in their lessons, loudly chanting the alphabet in schools specially set up by organisations like UNICEF. Every small detail gives them hope of a life outside the wire. Now it’s up to their government -and to us – to deliver them a future to look forward to.