Tucked away behind the bend of a swollen river, an hour and a half by motorboat from the region’s main health centre, local residents in the remote South Sudanese village of Lekuangole say their children are starving to death.
There’s the three-year-old son of Ngalan Luryen who died of hunger last February after a week hiding in a forest from militiamen. And there’s the nine-year-old grandson of Anna Korok who lost his life in July when conflict split him from his family and left him nothing to eat.
“We need food,” Korok told The New Humanitarian during a trip to the village in December. “So children don’t die.”
Food experts haven’t collected enough data to formally declare a “famine” in Lekuangole and the surrounding villages. But after months of fighting and torrential floods in this part of South Sudan, the experts – and local officials – say they have little doubt that one is happening here.
Aid groups had hoped such a situation could be avoided. In South Sudan’s capital city, Juba, politicians are meant to be implementing a peace deal that saw bitter rivals join forces a year ago in a new unity government. Five years of civil war that cost almost 400,000 lives were supposed to be over.
But even as fighting between the government and opposition rebels has subsided, long-running conflicts between community militias have intensified in the administrative area of Pibor – where Lekuangole is located – and in the neighbouring state of Jonglei.
Hundreds of people lost their lives in the two northeastern areas in 2020, and more violence is expected in the months ahead as militias from the local Murle, Dinka Bor, and Lou Nuer ethnic groups fight each other with an intensity not seen in years.
Few analysts and officials are clear on what’s driving the violence. Some believe politicians in Juba are seeking power in the new unity government by stirring chaos in the countryside. Others say the end of the civil war presented an opportunity for communities to revive old grudges – usually around cattle and land – in a region now awash with arms.
Whatever the reason, residents say this new wave of violence is having a devastating impact: Tens of thousands have been displaced, an unknown number of children have been snatched from their parents, and scores of women have been sexually assaulted.
Flooding, the worst in decades, has made everything worse. Starting in July, crops and cultivated farmland were submerged in Pibor and Jonglei – and other parts of the country too – exposing people to malaria, waterborne diseases, and deadly snakebites.
The combination of the fighting and the flooding has left many facing extreme hunger, and more than 30,000 people in Jonglei and Pibor are experiencing “likely famine”, according to data published by global food security experts. In Lekuangole alone, seven mothers told TNH that 13 of their children starved to death between February and November 2020.
Though some aid groups have spoken publicly about the famine conditions, many are choosing their words carefully for fear of reprisals from South Sudan’s government, which has refused to endorse the experts’ “likely famine” findings.
The current peace agreement is the second between President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar – now the vice-president – since civil war broke out in South Sudan in 2013 – two years after the country gained independence from Sudan.
While fighting between forces loyal to the two men has eased over the past year, the national political settlement has done little to reduce localised conflict in places like Pibor and Jonglei.