We can’t look away from the crisis in South Sudan

In a town called Kurmuk, on the eastern border with Ethiopia, I watched on in awe as refugees returned in 2006.

The trauma and hardship these people endured over more than two decades of civil war was replaced with a hope for the future and an overwhelming desire to return to their homeland.

Despite the multiple challenges the refugees knew they faced — a lack of safe clean water or physical infrastructure such as schools, hospitals and roads — I saw in them phenomenal strength and personal courage as they embraced rebuilding their land and their lives in their broken country.

It is devastating to witness yet again so many forced to flee their homes amid increasing conflict and disease in the region. South Sudan 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.

The situation in South Sudan, the world’s newest country but where so many live in poverty, has gone beyond the forewarned tipping point, with its people now facing certain catastrophe in the months ahead.

The recent bloody conflict has left millions dependent on food aid to survive. Four million people are at risk of severe hunger. This is a humanitarian crisis of staggering proportions.

Above: Families arriving in Mingkaman after fleeing violence. Photos: Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin/Oxfam

Over 1.5m people have been forced to flee their homes, often with just the clothes on their backs, leaving behind what meagre possessions they had with no means to get food, water or other vital essentials.

Over 392,000 of refugees have fled to neighbouring countries of Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan lending to increased risk of regional insecurity as the spread of localised conflict in the Middle East has demonstrated.

In camps for those displaced, people are living in atrocious conditions and walking knee deep in mud and water. Poor sanitation has already taken many lives through the spread of cholera and other diseases, ever increasing with the seasonal heavy rains.

Now, many of South Sudan’s well-travelled but unsurfaced roads that form the arteries and veins of the country’s economy are left water logged and largely impassable.

The conflict has prevented people from planting seeds in time for harvest before the rains. Because of this, access to food will deteriorate even further, as access by aid agencies decreases and the risk of new peaks in fighting rise.

Oxfam is reaching out to thousands of vulnerable people with food and water but there are thousands more who need our help. We will be staring into an abyss if funds do not start arriving soon.

Clockwise from top: 7 tonnes of Oxfam aid arrives in Juba, South Sudan. Photo: Grace Cahill/Oxfam Oxfam is helping to purify 1m litres of water a day Photo: Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin/Oxfam Martha Yandt receives food at a distribution. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

It is disappointing that while many nations pushed for and supported South Sudan’s independence from Sudan, little commitment is forthcoming from the international community in the form of aid.

The people of South Sudan need an end to the fighting, but with peace talks stalled, there is little hope of a swift end to the conflict.

We need to see a surge in the capacity of the response, which is very much dependent on funding. There must be a scaling-up of the activities of the international community to respond to this crisis.

A recent presentation by Irish aid agencies to the Oireachtas Foreign Affairs Committee resulted in cross party political acknowledgement of the scale of need in South Sudan and earnest commitment to supporting a peaceful resolution.

The international community can mirror Ireland’s diligence by increasing its diplomatic pressure on the two protagonists of the conflict, facilitating efforts to keep the situation in South Sudan on the international agenda, delivering on pledged funds to the UN appeal and deploying UN peacekeeping troops within capacity. It absolutely cannot resolve itself of responsibility.

Despite the flagging interest of news agencies, the conflict in South Sudan has not abated. The scenes of devastation may have become less visible but the suffering does not end.

The UN has warned that the worst hit areas are at risk of impending famine. We have a chance to act now to avoid the “Forgotten Crisis” becoming a crisis we cannot forget.

We need a massive and rapid global surge in aid. For the sake of our common humanity we cannot, we should not, look away at this time of crisis. Action must be taken now. The tide is already against us.

Jim Clarken is Oxfam Ireland’s CEO

South Sudan: From the Other Side of the War


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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Upcycling before and after: find your project at Oxfam Home

Fancy a one-of-a-kind piece of furniture? Rather than shelling out on a designer piece, check out the selection of good quality and great value furniture in your nearest Oxfam Home shop, roll up your sleeves and get upcycling!

Whether it’s simply dipping the legs of a wooden stool in bright paint or embarking a full-scale re-upholstery of a mid-century style armchair, there’s never been a better time to embark on a DIY meets design project.

Interiors blogger Alex Carberry (aka Hydrangea Girl) recently worked her magic on a set of bedside tables from Oxfam Home – you can see the beautiful results here.

Above: QuirkiStuff upcyclers Sue and Les Corbett at an upcycling event held in Dublin last year by Crown Paints and House and Home magazine in association with Oxfam. Photo: Paul Sherwood

Another person who knows a thing or two about giving furniture a new lease of life – Les Corbett of upcyclers QuirkiStuff and an Oxfam Home regular – share his top tips for upcycling:

Above: Oxfam Home regulars and serial upcyclers Les and Sue Corbett of QuirkiStuff have given these pieces of furniture the ultimate makeover. Photos: QuirkiStuff

It’s all in prep work

“Fastidious preparation is critical! For example, if you think that the piece you are working on may have been waxed or polished be sure to clean it thoroughly before sanding or painting. Otherwise your sandpaper will become clogged quickly and, more importantly, the paint will not adhere evenly.”

Take it apart first

“Disassemble furniture that is to be painted or varnished… remove hinges, catches, glass, removable moulding. This will enable you to check for damage, clean the hardware and prepare the surfaces as thoroughly as possible. Don’t forget to take numerous photographs and label everything.”

Screw in place

“If you are upcycling an old item, consider replacing the less visible screws with Phillips Head screws (of suitable gauge and length). This will fix the hinges and other hardware more securely.”

Above: More beautiful handiwork from upcyclers Les and Sue Corbett of QuirkiStuff has given these pieces of furniture the ultimate makeover. Photos: QuirkiStuff

Inspired by the before and after results? You can find your very own upcycling project at any of our three Oxfam Home stores, located on Belfast’s Dublin Road and on Francis Street in Dublin 8 and in Dublin’s north inner city just off Parnell Street at King’s Inns Street.

Not only will you have a unique centre-piece for your home, by purchasing your furniture in Oxfam Home you’ll be raising vital funds for our work overseas, such as our current emergency response in South Sudan where families desperately need food, water and sanitation.

Call in, we’d love to see you!


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


Rwanda 20 years on

Twenty years ago, the world stood by and watched as over 1,000,000 people in Rwanda were killed in 100 days.  Aid agencies saw what was happening and tried in vain to persuade Western governments to fulfil their obligations and intervene to stop the killing.

Today it is sobering to remember Rwanda and think about what has changed. How is the world responding today to war, conflict and murder? 

In short, are the world’s governments any better than they were in 1994 at setting aside selfish interests – or indeed selfish lack of interest – and acting to protect civilians from war and conflict?

Clockwise from top: Rwandan refugees returning from camps in Tanzania in 1996.  Refugees pass by recently dead left at the roadside, Kitali camp, DRC.  Rwandan refugees in Tanzania collecting grain 1994. Oxfam staff member with water bucket and Rwandan refugees in DRC 1997.  Aid worker treating a head wound in DRC 1997. Photos:  Howard Davies/ Oxfam

At first sight, the signs are not encouraging. While there may not have been systematic killings on the scale of the Rwandan genocide since 1994, extreme violence continues, with hundreds of thousands of people killed, raped or living in terror every year.

It’s now more important than ever to ask how well the world is doing in acting to reduce conflicts around the world.

Some things have gotten better. After ten years of NGO campaigning, an Arms Trade Treaty was agreed last year. The UN Security Council now sets about protecting civilians in its peacekeeping operations, far more than it did. 

But different countries still give arms to Syria’s conflict. Terrible violence in countries such as the Central African Republic still struggle for media attention. Despite the growth in UN peacekeeping very few rich countries donate their own resources to this effort.

And Oxfam faces growing humanitarian challenges because the world is still not as good as it should be at resolving conflicts. 

Above: Oxfam Genocide in Rwanda leaflet 1994. Photo:  Howard Davies/ Oxfam

Oxfam has been with Rwanda since the 1960s and working inside the country since 1982, delivering humanitarian response, water and sanitation, conflict management, human rights and democratisation and sustainable livelihoods projects especially in the aftermath of the 1994 Genocide.

Rwanda is today a country which has turned itself around and is now achieving impressive growth and stability. Yet massive challenges remain, with nearly half the population living in poverty, needing support to create work in rural and urban areas.

Oxfam is having huge success in Rwanda. We work with local organisations to support farmers to grow their own food, open their own small businesses, train other members of their communities in farming skills and create many jobs in rural areas so that they don’t have to rely on us to provide for them. 

Rwanda is a country moving beyond its tragic past to try to build a peaceful future.

The twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide will be a painful moment for millions, especially the Rwandan survivors still trying to heal their shattered lives. 

For the rest of us, it should be a time to remember how much more there is still to be done to protect civilians in every corner of the world, from every kind of atrocity.

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