Arriving on foot and emerging from a swamp on boats, people fleeing conflict find help from Oxfam and each other.
Lauren Hartnett is a humanitarian press officer for Oxfam in the United States.
After famine was declared in parts of South Sudan earlier this year, the world has reacted with generosity and alarm. But the people of South Sudan need more help now if we’re going to stop the famine and extreme hunger threatening millions.
Last month I had the great privilege to join my colleagues in South Sudan as they distributed food to families who had just arrived in Nyal from Mayendit, seeking safety, food, clean water and other necessities.
The community of Nyal has welcomed new arrivals with overwhelming generosity, sharing what little food, shelter and other basics they have, like sleeping mats and mosquito nets. Samuel, a man I spoke with said, “We are very grateful – they welcomed us with open hands.” When asked if they will share the food they are receiving that day he said “Everything we get, we eat together – it’s obvious! People arriving after us – we will share with them, too.”
However, Oxfam saw that even with this communal food stock and efforts to gather wild foods like water lilies and fish, there was a dangerous gap: Many who fled Mayendit had recently received aid but were forced to leave it behind as they fled the fighting. Recognizing the urgent needs, Oxfam’s team on the ground sprang into action, registering the most vulnerable families, mobilizing food stocks from Juba, and distributing the basics of beans, oil and salt to 300 households – all within a matter of days.
I arrived during the last stage, as families gathered to collect the food that would once again be shared. Even after being forced to leave their homes and losing virtually everything – homes, loved ones, cattle and other belongings – the people I spoke with described themselves as “grateful,” “lucky” and “happy” to be receiving this aid that will tide them over for the coming weeks.
Leaving behind “horror”
One elderly man I met, Majok Noan Mayian, had just arrived in Nyal the day before the food distribution, and could barely walk, needing support from family members and walking sticks. He traveled to Nyal with his neighbors, who had family in Nyal who have opened their very small home to him and his seven additional family members. As Majok was assisted into the clearing, a hush fell over the crowd that had gathered to receive food. Even those who were clearly in immediate need were taken aback by how gaunt and frail they were, allowing them to pass through to the front of the line to register.
He and the others of his generation had to be carried in a plastic tarp floating in the swamps for several days to reach Nyal. Just like too many others, his life was uprooted when his home was burned down, his cattle and other possessions stolen and he was forced to run for his life. They didn’t have much because it has been too dangerous to farm recently, but the loss is still devastating. And even as he struggled to sit up to speak, he talked about how others were “too sick and weak” – and not able to make the trip that he had made to Nyal. He told me, “What we have left behind is a horror. What we have in Mayendit is gone – houses are burned, our cattle taken. And then living in the islands there, you don’t know if you will live to see the next day.”
For me, it was hard to imagine others who were in worse health than he, but unfortunately I know too well that this is the case. Thousands have fled the conflict and are now seeking safety in remote islands in the swamp, but this isolated life behind conflict lines means many are not able to reach any aid. And, without clean water and facing illnesses like cholera, any food that people are able to find doesn’t provide nourishment.
Working around the clock
Oxfam and others are working around the clock to bring aid and relief to the people of South Sudan – both by meeting immediate needs through responses like clean water, sanitation, and food, but also by helping people have longer term health and success through community gardens, fish farming and ensuring the most vulnerable people are able to access aid. Oxfam is helping to ensure that people in remote areas of the swamp are able to reach the support they need in Nyal through an innovative canoe voucher program. Oxfam is distributing food to over 415,000 people as well as providing over 140,000 people with clean water and sanitation which are equally important to keep people healthy and famine at bay.
In Nyal, the need felt massive, and even after I left the numbers of people arriving has sky-rocketed, and with every day that passes the needs become more urgent as the rainy season approaches. But, meeting the individual South Sudanese people committed to helping each other, and my dedicated Oxfam colleagues, does give me hope.
All of this work is saving lives, and needs more support to reach the thousands who are still arriving from the famine-affected areas in need of urgent care and longer term support until they can return home and restart their lives. What the people of South Sudan really need is an end to the conflict. While the fighting continues, many can’t support themselves, attend school and feel safe in their own homes, which is all they – and anyone – really want.
The people I met in South Sudan radiated kindness, humor and generosity in the midst of unrelenting challenges. They are doing all that they can to help themselves and each other, but they need more help right now to stave off hunger, and to keep themselves going until a sustainable peace can be achieved.