South Sudan

  • Fighting has ravaged South Sudan for the past three-and-a-half years. More than six million people – 45 percent of the population – are facing extreme hunger. As many as 7.5 million people now need humanitarian assistance. More than 1 million of these people are children who are acutely malnourished. On top of this, as many as 3.8 million people have fled their homes; with more than 2 million seeking safety in neighbouring countries like Uganda, where there are now 1 million South Sudanese refugees.

South Sudan's hope for a peaceful future

30-year-old Nyoruop Puk has been a resident of the UN House refugee camp in Juba, South Sudan, after conflict broke out in December 2013. 

Since then at least 10,000 people have lost their lives and more than a million people have been forced from their homes, while the number of South Sudanese refugees in neighbouring countries has risen to over 360,000. In total, 4.9 million people now need urgent humanitarian support. 

Nyoruop is balancing a large sisal sack on her head. It contains grain that will feed her family. She hands a voucher to the charcoal vendors and smiles, waiting patiently for them to give her the bags of charcoal equivalent to that voucher, which has been provided by Oxfam. 

Above: Nyoruop Puk, carrying a sack of grain. Photo: Mackenzie Knowles Coursin/Oxfam

Nyoruop continued: “I came here to protect myself and my family. When my we heard about the fighting, we knew that we had to leave so that we are not targeted. I was nine months pregnant at that time.”

She was not only running for her life, but for the unborn baby she was bringing into the world. 

“We had to walk to UN House first before thinking about anything else. After arriving here, we found a space and were given things like canvas sheets, some food and also water.”

Nyoruop gave birth the next day. It was as if the baby knew that it was safe to leave the comfort of his mother’s womb. It did not matter whether it was at home or at the UN House. Events as big as the one that occurred in Juba are not enough to stop nature’s course. 

“It was difficult but my friend Nyapeth Khor located the health workers and they helped me deliver my baby. He is healthy and doing well.”

After Nyruop receives the charcoal, she walks briskly to her tent in block four of the UN House compound. Waiting for her are her new born baby and her sisters, visibly excited to see her. She reaches for the heavy load on her head and lays it down on the ground, at the same time she sets down the bags of charcoal. It’s time to prepare lunch. She sits down and reflects on her life when canvas sheets were not her home. 

“We came here together and six of us share this tent. It’s very hot and we’re grateful that we at least have some kind of roof over our head. I used to live with three of my sisters in Kor Williams in Juba, Nyabok Madit, Martha Nyalam and Mary Nyalong. My sister, Martha Nyalam, has one child, and I have another. 

Clockwise from top: Ayak Majok, 20, carries home water from an Oxfam water point in Mingkaman settlement. Photo by Mackenzie Knowles Coursin/Oxfam Firewood is becoming more scarce in Mingkamen camp, Awerial County, South Sudan. Photo: Oxfam/Aimee Brown Oxfam staff distribute vouchers to be exchanged for charcoal at UN House. Credit: Oxfam/Aimee Brown 
 

With the help of her sisters, Nyruop gets the fire going. Dying embers on a metal stove near the tent are revived as she adds fresh charcoal and blows the flames to life. The first steps to preparing today’s lunch, yellow lentils. Although a very limited meal, it keeps her family nourished through the day. However, it’s not a sustainable and a healthy option. 

“I am happy that organisations are supporting us but grains are not enough for a healthy meal. We also need some vegetables and some meat if possible,” she says. 

“The charcoal vouchers provided by Oxfam really help. Before that, we had to walk outside to fetch firewood and that could take time and could also be risky. Old people, if they did not have help, would struggle to fetch wood. Some would not go and collect at all because they were too old and could not do it. Now that it’s close by and quite easy to get, it’s really relieved some of the stress. Cooking or boiling water has become easier.”

Finding safe water to drink was also challenging when they arrived. Before Oxfam set up its water supply system, clean water for cooking and drinking had to be bought. Sanitation was poor as organisations were scrambling to respond to the situation. This paid off because Nyoruop and her family now have unlimited access to clean water and sanitation facilities. 

“There is a water point close to our tent and also latrines and bathrooms. We feel safe in here.

Clockwise from top: Oxfam is helping to purify 1m litres of water a day. Photo: Oxfam/Aimee Brown. As a public health promoter for Oxfam in Mingkamen camp, Martha Nyandeng teaches children how to use latrines and properly wash their hands. Martha escaped from Bor with no savings or possessions, but the small amount she earns as a public health promoter with Oxfam means she has enough to buy food for her children. Photo: Oxfam/Aimee Brown. Mary Ajak Maluk shares her thoughts with Oxfam staff during a community meeting in Mingkaman. Oxfam regularly holds meetings with community members in order to better understand what’s working well and what needs to be improved. Photo by Mackenzie Knowles Coursin/Oxfam
 

Leaving her home behind was a painful experience for Nyoruop and the rainy season is now bringing additional problems. “This house will not protect us from the rains. The material itself is not strong enough to shield us. We sleep on mats on the ground, so the water flowing on the ground is terrible, especially for my new born child and the other children in the camp,” she says. 

The effects of the conflict have been devastating for many families in South Sudan. Nyoruop and her family now live in a small makeshift tent in an overcrowded, squalid camp where poor sanitation increases the risk of disease. Although it’s temporary, she does not know how long they will have to stay.

“I don’t know what caused the fighting, so I don’t know what will end it. I just hope it ends soon. I would prefer to be at home – but not in Juba. My only hope is to go back home to Unity where we’re from and where my husband is. I will feel the safest there.”

Our Humanitarian Manager, Colm Byrne, on Morning Ireland

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An incredible story of survival against all the odds in South Sudan

A major humanitarian crisis is unfolding in South Sudan where more than a million people have been forced from their homes by fighting. These people need water, food and protection from the violence. Below is one mother’s incredible story of survival against all the odds.

Martha Nyandit (42) and her six 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, Martha only had time to pick up a few things – 300 South Sudanese pounds (€50/£40), some clothes and 10 kilos of sorghum grain before fleeing to an island in the middle of the river Nile.  

The island was no paradise. It was the first stop on a journey clouded by hunger.  

Clockwise from top: Portrait of Martha Nyandit, South Sudan. Martha shows us her registration card. Martha waits for food at a distribution. 
Photos: Pablo Tosco / Oxfam
 

The precious grain she had managed to rescue was whole and so needed to be ground by a hand grinder or a grinding stone, neither of which anyone among the hundreds of people on the island had with them.  With nothing else to eat, Martha had to boil the grain whole.

“For the adults and the older children this was okay but the small children couldn’t eat it, they complained it was tough and hard.” 

Asked how she coped with hungry children, she says: “It was a challenge and honestly, I had no method of coping with them.  But some of the others hiding had some food which they shared with my children.  I thank God for this help.”

Eventually the grain and what little else others had brought ran out. The families became so desperate for food that they would travel back to the mainland in dug-out canoes, risking their lives under the sound of artillery fire to find the next meal. Then one morning, when these canoes were waiting on the shore for their owners to return, some armed soldiers stole them and crossed back over the river to the island where Martha, her family and many others were hiding.

“The armed men came ashore and started shooting, so we quickly ran down into the reeds where they couldn’t see us. They didn’t know where exactly we were so they sprayed bullets into the reeds.”

Martha’s 11-year old son Kuol was injured by the gunfire when a bullet grazed the skin on his ankle, a lucky escape as she said several people were shot dead.  At that point, with the soldiers on the island, Martha and the children had no place to hide but in the river itself.

Clockwise from top: Martha Nyandit collects dirty drinking water. Martha talks to Oxfam's Grace Cahill. Martha grinds sorghum grain - a meal for her children. Photos: Pablo Tosco / Oxfam
 

“I knew I had to get us down into the water for us to be safe.  The water came up to my chest, I had one child on my back, the baby around my neck and one floating on my arm. The others were able to go on their own.”  

Martha explained to my colleague Grace Cahill, how along with several other families, they spent the entire day in hiding between the river and its bank, trying to make as little noise as possible in case they were caught by the soldiers.  Martha had to go to extraordinary lengths to keep her young children quiet.

“Kur (aged four) kept asking me where his elder siblings had gone off on their own.  He kept screaming ‘Where’s my brother? Where’s my brother gone?’ I needed to keep him quiet so lay on top of him on the shore. He had mud all over his face but it stopped the sound of him crying.  I told him he must stop asking questions because we need to survive.”

After a day spent submerged in the water, with the sound of fighting on the island and nothing to eat, the families managed to telephone relatives already in Mingkaman camp, home to thousands of displaced families like Martha’s, and got a barge sent after dark to rescue them. 

In Mingkaman the family arrived with nothing, Martha told me how she had lost the 300 South Sudanese Pounds and all of the family’s clothes in their escape from the island.  But upon arrival, Martha discovered it wasn’t just clothes and money the family had lost.

“I had been asking if my husband was alive since January but people refused to answer me straight.  It was not until a few weeks ago, here in MIngkaman, that a cousin came to bring me the news that he was killed.”

Martha’s husband was a soldier in the South Sudanese government army when he was pulled into action and killed in the town of Bor.

Clockwise from top: Martha and her family. Oxfam staff measure out food for Martha at a distribution. Martha waits for food to be distributed. Photos: Pablo Tosco / Oxfam
 

“Now I feel like it was recent even though he has been dead for three months. I used to wake up needing to get on with my day, needing to get on with things but I felt so weary, I couldn’t get things done, I needed to know where he was.”

Martha recalled with sadness how it was her husband who had built their home back in Bor where they had two thatched huts and one smaller shelter they used as a kitchen. The family also took care of eight of their own goats.  

At the moment, Martha and her six children only eat twice a day, rather than a normal three times a day.

“We eat once around 11 and 12 in the morning when I cook porridge and again between 6 and 7 in the evening.  When the food is scarce I give breakfast to the children and then I eat only once.”

“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 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.

“Maybe one day people will see vulnerable people like us and decide to help more.” 

Asked about how she managed to be so resilient, she simply replied: “But it’s the responsibility of a single mother to put up and wait for better times.”

Better times must come soon for this family who had already been through so much in last few months on their search for safety. 

We are now supporting Martha and 95,000 other people in Mingkaman, distributing enough food to feed a family for a month. Every family receives two 50kg bags of sorghum grain, 10.5 kg of lentils and 7 litres of oil. 

In addition to food, seed and tool distribution, we are also providing a full water and sanitation response – treating water directly from the Nile so it’s safe to drink, building latrines, distributing soap and teaching people simple methods for good hygiene.

We are also calling on the international community to step up diplomatic efforts to promote peace talks and saves lives with a massive injection of emergency aid.

Until then, this rapidly worsening crisis threatens to become an even larger catastrophe. 

Please donate here, call 1850 30 40 55 (Republic of Ireland) or 0800 0 30 40 55 (Northern Ireland) or go to your local Oxfam shop.

Colm Byrne is Oxfam Ireland’s Humanitarian Manager. He is working in South Sudan on our emergency response.

Oxfam's Colm Byrne in South Sudan

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