Henrietta H Fore, the Executive Director of the United Nations Children’s Agency (UNICEF) warned that more than 250,000 children in war-torn South Sudan are “at risk of imminent death” from severe malnutrition. “We are very worried that a quarter of a million children are going to be facing death this year before July,” Ms Fore said after a two-day visit to the most affected regions.
The civil war ignited in 2013 after President Salva Kiir accused his former Deputy Riek Machar of planning a coup. The violent civil war has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent civilians, the displacement of a quarter of the state’s population, and agricultural production to completely halt. With no food in the markets and South Sudan heading into the dry season, Ms Fore warns that “the acute and severe malnutrition is growing stronger.”
An estimated 2.4 million children have forcibly fled their homes, leading to more than 2,300 child deaths and 19,000 children recruited into armed groups. With at least one in three schools damaged or closed, nearly three quarters of children cannot access an education. UNICEF has documented more than 1,200 cases of sexual violence against children since the war begun five years ago.
A South Sudanese father explained how he was desperate to feed his wife and five small children. Having not eaten in days, Wol searched for six days, eating fruit he picked from trees. Once reaching the government-held town of Ayod, soldiers attacked him by surprise. “When I got shot, I was thinking that I didn’t want to die before I got food for my family. We’re locked in here and we can’t get out.”
Mary Yata in South Sudan’s Lainya told of four government soldiers attempting to steal vegetables when she was farming in her fields. “They said if I didn’t leave now they’d kill me,” she explained. Days later, Mary saw the soldiers selling her vegetables at the local markets.
The South Sudanese army has rejected these stories of stealing and intense violence, calling them “negative propaganda” from the rebels. However, there are numerous claims and stories similar to these of the government and rebels using food as weapons of war. Innocent civilians seem to be caught in a deadly circle with no protection.
The delivery of relief and humanitarian services have been complicated and hindered by numerous attacks on aid workers, with 28 humanitarians killed last year alone. The World Food Program has increased its food distributions from every three months to every two months. Aid workers argue that this is not enough, with one explaining how they “saw old people collecting grains that fell on the ground.”
South Sudan’s warring groups signed a ceasefire deal in December, agreeing to allow aid groups to assist civilians. Unfortunately, the deal has been repeatedly violated, with both sides blaming each other for the breaches.