South Sudan

“We came here after crossing swamps” Dispatch from South Sudan

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By Erika Tovar Gonzalez, Media Delegate, ICRC South Sudan

JUBA, South Sudan—The landscape below is a collage of blue and green, rivers bleeding into swamps. It is hard to imagine how people could have survived here for the last three months after clashes made it impossible for humanitarian organizations to reach them.

I am traveling as part of an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) team to a very remote pocket of Unity State, South Sudan that is only reachable by helicopter. The area has been a flashpoint in the country's five-year-long conflict and was a hotbed of clashes from April to June.

We arrive to thousands of people gathering. They have come from six different villages to receive food and shelter materials after losing everything to violence.

The needs are staggering.

"We don't have anything. I lost my football and my clothes," a 14-year-old boy tells me.

I ask what he has been wearing for the last three months since the clashes started. He points at his t-shirt. Like him, most kids live and sleep in just a t-shirt or a single dress after their belongings were stolen.

"Did you lose any family members?"

"Yes, my uncle. He was the closest person I had after my father was killed. I was running with him when he was shot."

His story, tragically, is not unique.

Families here lost everything to looting. This has made it extremely difficult for families to have enough to eat. Fishing nets and farming equipment were also stolen, leaving people to forage for whatever wild roots and leaves they can find.

Their experience is multiple millions of times over: hunger is a grinding and sometimes deadly reality for millions of South Sudanese. Without assistance, it is clear how people could slide into total catastrophe.

Relief from the sky

Today, we will do three rounds of distributions by air. Each bag weighs 50 kilograms and is dropped from 200 meters high. Some community members are tasked with keeping people safely out of the drop zone, while others organize the bags by content —sorghum, rice, beans, salt, sugar, and tarpaulins.

Even those not formally trained by the ICRC are helping. Women are busy splitting the food and organizing the bags to make them lighter to carry. Some will walk for an entire day to reach home and choose to stay here overnight, sheltering under trees, so they can start their long journey back at dawn.

Others will have to break it into two loads. Houses near the drop zone charge a small amount of food to hold onto people's rations until they are able to return and carry the rest of it home.

Everything that we provide has utility. The bags that contain the food we provided find new life as fishing nets, with the fibers pulled apart into string and then woven together.

A Life on the Run

People here have been forced from their homes not just once, but multiple times, living a life constantly on the run, in search of a sliver of safety.

I met a woman who looked to be in her early 20s, who has sought refuge in this area for six months. "Our village was attacked," she said. "We went to another village, but they followed us, so we came here after crossing some swamps."

I ask how they have survived all this time with no outside assistance.

"We don't have land. We lost everything. We forage for fruits, roots, and sometimes we walk to a [displacement camp] to get assistance."

Her children have been out of school for a year because of the attacks. One of them tells me he wants to be a doctor. When every day is a struggle to survive, education slips away to a dream.

Families also often end up torn apart, with everyone fleeing in different directions to escape an oncoming attack. "Kids are separated from their families on the run: they get lost, run different ways, or are abducted," a community leader tells me.

In total it took us three weeks to complete the distribution. The community has been close to us. We have been close to them.

Dozens of kids come by each day to play, show off, and see the photos I took of them. They deserve a better future than what has been given—one without burned homes, hunger, and suering, where schools are open and dreams to become doctors are within reach.

One woman I met said she lost track of how many times she had to abandon everything to escape incoming attacks. I asked her what her greatest wish was.

"If life goes back to normal—if peace is coming—everything will be ok. We will stay home without running into the bush. We will not suffer from hunger or suffer for food. You will get what you need at home. This is what we need."