The Sunday People travels to the heart of the stricken country with British charity Plan International UK and meets Chagai and her family who, like many others, face starvation
Gethin Chamberlain, for The Sunday People, 24 June 2017
Baby Nyandiar’s eyes are full of hope but it is clear, even at first glance, that she is dying.
The one-month-old girl is latched on to her mother’s breast but Chagai’s milk dried up days ago after the family’s food ran out.
Nyandiar sucks and sucks but nothing comes. Chagai, 29, seems to be in a daze and the rest of the family sit quietly watching. It is not just the baby who is dying – they all are.
Their harvest has failed and the family of six have been trying to live on leaves and a few dried coconuts.Their home is a hut in South Sudan, where more than five million people are at risk. The United Nations has declared a famine in the world’s most recently created country. It is the first such crisis in the region since 2011, when a quarter of a million people died in Somalia.
The Sunday People travelled to the heart of the country with British charity Plan International UK, which is organising emergency feeding for mums and kids around the town of Rumbek.
The generous UK public has already given £10million to the Disasters Emergency Committee East Africa Crisis appeal and the Queen has made a personal donation.
But Chagai, her husband Makat Luath, 40, and their children Nyandiar, Nyanrup, two, Amakour, six and Magang, 11, have fallen through the net.
Their thatched home is among a scattering of dwellings in Rumkur, three miles off the red dirt main road.
The route is lined with military checkpoints because South Sudan has been in the grip of a brutal civil war since 2013, just two years after it gained its independence from Sudan.
A few broken stems of sorghum, grown for grain, are all there is to show for their failed harvest.
The heat is overwhelming but every night the family sleep together locked indoors alongside their animals – a few chickens and goats.
The reason why is clear to see. In the dirt under a nearby tree the claw marks and paw prints of hyenas are clearly visible.
Chagai sits in the shade of a tree looking down at Nyandiar and says quietly: “My child is sick.” Nyandiar’s eyes never leave her face. Chagai has already lost her two-year-old son Monydeng, who died when her milk dried up.
Old soldier Makat, wearing a green army tunic with the badge of South Sudan on the right sleeve, said: “It was because of malnutrition. She had no breast milk.
“He was losing weight. We don’t have family to help.”
He paused, then went on: “I took him to the doctor but the treatment didn’t work. The baby died. I gave him to God.”
Even in the good years the harvest here is never plentiful, but the family are afraid to move elsewhere because of the fighting.
He said: “If we go somewhere else someone may come and shoot you in your field. But they are killing people around here too. Even now.” Before the fighting the family lived in a place where they could grow peanuts and sorghum and keep cows .
But gunmen came and took the cows so they moved closer to Rumbek, trying to find safety.
Makat said: “If we eat it is good but some days we have no food.” He drinks some water but can’t keep it down.
There was only one thing to do for this hopeless family seeking shelter from gunmen, hyenas, hunger and the midday sun. We drive for 30 minutes to Rumbek market and buy £70 of essentials – grains, beans, rice, cooking oil, salt, flour, glucose.
It will be enough to last them a month until Plan International can get them more help. They accept the gifts with bemusement. Some neighbours gather to watch and promise to help the family cook the food and get their strength back.
But what of other families? Famine is yet to be declared in this district. But there are already reports of deaths, including one of a mum who returned from looking for food for family to find three children dead.
“It was not possible to confirm the report.
Plan is treating severely malnourished children at five clinics around Rumbek. In the past year it has treated 3,000 children. But this a tiny proportion of those affected. Many are trapped in villages inaccessible because of the fighting.
Daniel Kon, Plan International’s field coordinator in Rumbek, is clear this is a man-made famine – an entirely avoidable disaster. He said: “Our problem is not how to get food, but how we are killing ourselves.
“If you go to the field you can be killed. If you go somewhere to get food you can be killed. So people stay in their houses and there is hunger.
“The issue is leadership, from the top down to the community level.”
He expects the number of malnourished kids to rise sharply this month and next because the summer rainy season will make many roads inaccessible for food supplies.
The violence and food shortages are driving more than 1,000 people to flee South Sudan every day, according to figures issued by Unicef this week.
Leila Pakkala, the UN agency’s regional director, said: “More than one million children have been forced from their homes in South Sudan, often amid horrific violence.
“Day after day, week after week, they are being received by countries such as Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya.
“Despite great efforts on many fronts the systems in these countries are tremendously stretched.”All this is a far cry from the international euphoria that greeted South Sudan’s declaration of independence in 2011 and the end of Africa’s longest-running civil war.
It took just two years for the country to descend into its own civil war as Dinka forces loyal to President Salva Kiir faced members of the Nuer tribe, supporting former vice president Riek Machar .
The failure of the rains last year was the final straw. In February the UN declared a famine in Unity State in the north of the country. At least 100,000 face starvation and five million are in danger.
One of the UN’s top officials warned last month that all efforts to save them will be in vain unless the fighting stops.
Nyandiar’s family have enough food to last a month. After that, Plan has promised to do everything it can to help them.
There is only so much anyone can do. When Plan’s staff tried to go back this week, they were unable to get through because of fresh fighting. They will keep trying: it is all they can do.
Only an end to the fighting can save South Sudan from the famine threatening to overwhelm it.