In South Sudan, a mother strives for her child's survival

By Nicholas Ledner, Communications Specialist, UNICEF

Famine has been declared in South Sudan. It is the first time in six years this has happened anywhere in the world. Nearly one third of the population is in need of emergency food assistance; over 1.1 million children are expected to be acutely malnourished in 2017; and in January 2017, UNICEF and partners admitted 11 539 children for severe acute malnutrition treatment. EU Humanitarian Aid is supporting UNICEF, the World Food Programme (WFP) and other partners to try to reach areas affected by insecurity and cut off from humanitarian assistance.

It was around 10 a.m. on a July morning in a village near Juba when Helen started seeing and feeling bullets whizz by her head. She had just finished having tea and was now tending to the children’s laundry. Immediately, she ducked down and ran back to her home, grabbing her two children and fleeing the village as quickly as possible with other villagers. Conflict had broken out and those caught in the crossfire seemed to matter little.

Helen spent four days on foot, walking while carrying her older child on her back and her youngest, Emmanuel, in her arms. She had no money for any alternative. Ultimately, they arrived in Uganda, reaching the safety of a camp, but an almost harsher obstacle confronted her – the lack of food.

When Helen and her children arrived in Uganda, the children were still healthy and strong. However, the lack of food in the camp slowly began to weaken the children, particularly Emmanuel. Helen knew they couldn’t stay in this camp and decided to make the perilous journey back to her village near Juba; death due to war was better than a potential slow death from starvation.

When Helen arrived back home, she was dismayed to find her village abandoned and her husband absent. She tried calling and calling but his telephone number no longer worked. Now things were even harder for Helen: she had no parents to help her and nothing from the gardens was left to eat in her village.

A Race to Save Emmanuel's life

Emmanuel’s health got worse due to the lack of food. One morning in January, Helen found her son passed out unconscious in their home. She knew it was time to do whatever it took to ensure her youngest child’s survival. She begged and pleaded for anyone in her village to help; finally, her brother was able to provide enough money for her and Emmanuel to make the journey into Juba to visit a malnutrition treatment centre in the hope of saving the child’s life.

Helen prayed constantly for Emmanuel’s survival. There were many moments in the past few months when Helen lost hope the child would pull through and survive. She recalled Emmanuel throwing up and having diarrhoea, additional signs of severe acute malnutrition, but at the time she was helpless to do anything. At the clinic, Emmanuel is in good hands and will hopefully recover to full health.

Thankfully, the clinic has enough therapeutic milk and ready to use therapeutic food to keep the child satiated. At the clinic, Helen has learned the importance of health practices for her children, especially, “When a child falls sick, to rush as soon as possible to the nearest centre.” The spirit of the nurses is helping her stay positive.

Helen thinks about the war and explains, “If there was no war, my family would be together and we could have jobs to buy food for our family. But nothing is operating and no opportunities are available for me.” She misses the comfort her husband provided the family, not to mention the money he brought in. For now, she doesn’t know what the future holds. Helen and her family are still battling to stay alive.

In areas affected by insecurity and cut off from humanitarian assistance UNICEF, with funding from the EU and in collaboration with WFP and partners, is working to reach the most vulnerable malnourished children through its rapid response mechanism and working to re-establish static services in areas with relative calm.

Last updated 19/05/2017