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27.3.2017 | News

They eat leaves and wild fruit but they don’t want to escape to Europe

South Sudan | A young patient with her mother in MAGNA operated health center. © Martin Bandžák/MAGNA

"The situation continues to deteriorate," said Denisa Augustínová of MAGNA, an organization that helps people in South Sudan, where almost half of the population is starving. 

“The only food they have is from the bush and it is getting harder and harder to get it. First, they eat the pulp of the fruit, and dry the seeds. When they get dry, they grind and cook them alone or with leaves from the same tree. There is nothing else to eat, "Denisa Augustínová describes the situation in South Sudan.

The United Nations in February declared famine in this African country. Other countries are at risk as well. Famine is, according to another Slovak aid worker, the biggest issue on our planet currently. 

 

What is behind the famine in South Sudan?

It's the combination of their civil war, migration, inability to cultivate the land, the recent droughts, with the partial or total ban of entry for humanitarian organizations. Most of the farmers and their families have lost their livestock. The farmland became devastated by civil war. These people have had for months access to only the food with low nutritional value. The situation is dire and requires prompt delivery of highly nutritious food. For people with severe malnutrition is food no longer enough, they need a therapeutic diet.

The pro-government ethnic groups hamper the delivery of humanitarian aid to the anti-government regions. The situation continues to deteriorate because humanitarian organizations such as MAGNA have difficulties getting there. People living in the blocked regions can neither sustain themselves nor escape from the places that used to be their homes but turned into battlefields. Many people have lost their lives and acres of crops got destroyed by military vehicles. Thousands of people are dependent on what they find in the wilderness. And these resources are slowly drying up.

How many people are at risk of dying of starvation?

About 100 thousand people are under immediate threat, but the situation is not much better for others neither. About 40 percent of South Sudan's population, or about 4.9 million is in need of some form of high nutritional food. If nothing gets done about this situation before July, some 5 million people will face starvation.

For obvious reasons, children and the elderly are the most vulnerable during the time of famine. The diet has a significant effect on physical and mental development especially for children under 2 years of age. Malnourished children under five years have significantly weakened immune system and are less resistant to common childhood diseases. Therefore, a malnourished child can die as a result of cold or diarrhoea.

What do these people eat?

Right now, people in many parts of South Sudan have absolutely nothing to put in the mouth in terms of food as we know it. They are left with only leaves from trees and wild fruits, and they must often walk into dangerous bush to get to them. First the fruit pulp is eaten and then they dry the seeds. When dried, they smash them and cook them with leaves from the same tree. Nothing else is available. They lost their cattle, some also their farming tools. In many parts of the country, what used to be farm land is now an unfarmable area, completely destroyed during the fights.

People are literally fighting for food. Ignoring the threats of wilderness, the possibility of facing armed groups, if they want to survive, they must go further and further into the bush. Being shot while looking for food is not uncommon. These people are functioning under constant fear of violence, often hiding in the bushes or in the swamps. They are literally fighting to survive but the ongoing conflict seriously complicates that effort. Moreover, the country is experiencing outbreak of cholera - an acute diarrheal disease that can kill a person unless necessary medication is taken. Bacterial infections are transmitted by contaminated water or food. It has also been raging in Somalia.

Has the world's reaction been appropriate? 

I think the international community has long overlooked the problem so the third largest refugee crisis has developed into a humanitarian catastrophe. The effort of some humanitarian organisations, including us, hasn't been enough, so the region entered the state of famine. We are talking about the biggest crisis since the World War II. 20 million people in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria are facing starvation. This global spread of hunger is the highest in the past few decades. It is estimated that approximately 70 million people need some form of food aid. Within Africa, the recent persistent droughts in South-eastern Ethiopia and Eastern Kenya are not making things any easier.

The region has been unable to accumulate sufficient amount of funds to deal with the problem, and we believe that in the near future more governments and individuals will get involved, and won't remain indifferent. Mainly thanks to help from Slovaks could MAGNA treat people during the 2011 famine in Somalia. By the end of 2012 were our paramedics able to treat about 14 thousand people, mostly children under 5 years old in nine nutritional centres. There were cases when the four year child weighted less than 3.5 pounds, which were sad reminders of how human body looks like after not receiving any nutrition for extended period of time. Similarly, monitoring the malnutrition and nutritional support is part of the health care services we provide in South Sudan. Our team is already stationed in the areas where the famine has been declared.

There are many people suffering in South Sudan. What are the chances they will be heading to Europe?

The number of people who fled the civil war in South Sudan has exceeded 1.5 million, which is the third largest refugee crisis in the world after Syria and Afghanistan. In addition to the refugees, there are 2.1 million people internally displaced within the country. Most refugees target Uganda, up to two thousand people a day. Uganda has so far received nearly 700-thousand of South Sudan refugees and has become the largest host country in the current crisis. People who remain must constantly endure intense fighting, kidnappings, rape, fear of armed groups as well as food shortages.

South Sudanese are not interested in fleeing to Europe, they stay within a short radius from their home country, just looking for a peace and food. Many refugees have integrated into Ugandan local communities, where they have the opportunity to work on farmland. The question is how many more the country will be able to adopt.

South Sudanese government is trying to take advantage of the situation where lives of many civilians are sustained thanks to humanitarian support, raising the fee for their stay in the country from 100 to 10 K US dollars per person. How will that order affect you?

Thankfully, it is not in effect yet and it is unclear at what point in time it will be introduced. There are ongoing discussions and negotiations between the local government and group of humanitarian agencies, that MAGNA is part of. Next week we will run another series of talks, with the United Nations attending as well. Up to this point, we were able to talk only in terms of defining the time frame this order will be in effect for. The question is if in case of visa for the stay up to one to three months the price will be the same and so on.

MAGNA has been operating in the country since 2011. It currently focuses on two regions: the Eastern district Jonglei and the capital Juba, providing help in camps for internally displaced people. MAGNA paramedics in the territory have the capacity to help around 100 thousand people. They on daily basis watch closely patients with malnutrition and follow with nutrition aid as a part of integrated medical help. Moreover, they cure malaria, pneumonia and acute diarrhoea - which are extremely dangerous, particularly for children.

Author: Tomáš Vasilko
Source: Denník N

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