Ertharin Cousin, the Executive Director of the World Food Programme, has just finished a three-day visit to South Sudan and Ethiopia, where she traveled alongside the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to see first-hand the devastating impact of the South Sudan crisis. In her latest blog, the WFP chief talks about meeting people in the town of Nyal who have fled a deadly combination of violence and hunger.
I met a woman on Tuesday who’d been uprooted by South Sudan’s conflict twice in a week. She’d left her home village to flee fighting, and after three days of walking she thought she reached a place of safety. But the violence came there as well, and she walked another four days with her children to reach the town of Nyal, in the southern tip of Unity State, where she hoped to find safety. Sadly, there is no guarantee that the conflict will not spread to that town as well, but for now at least she has found a measure of relief.
In Nyal, the conflict eliminated any ability to transport food by road. To ensure those trapped by the conflict did not go hungry, WFP has airdropped food to support about 25,000 people. Distributions had just begun. Other agencies – including UNHCR, UNICEF, IOM, FAO and World Vision – had also begun providing assistance with water, nutrition, sanitation, health, livelihoods.
Last year, the people of Nyal had lost their harvest to floods. Under “normal” conditions they would rely on market goods reaching them by river. But the conflict has stopped the river trade, and the markets are empty. So now both the IDPs and the local community have been struggling to survive. Some said they had eaten nothing for weeks but lotus roots collected from the river.
As I sat alongside my friend and colleague, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, and we talked with that mother, I marveled not only at what she had been through but at her determination to survive, and to provide for her children. She and other South Sudanese mothers were glad to have assistance, but more than anything else they said they wanted peace – peace to allow them a chance to rebuild their lives (again) and to allow their children to get back to school.
Inside a busy food distribution tent, I met a mother of three whose infant leaned against her shoulder. It was clear right away that the baby was malnourished. Her eyebrows and hair had grown blonde. As I talked to the baby’s mother amid the hubbub, the child never raised her head or opened her eyes despite the noise.
WFP’s team gave the family a special nutrition supplement called Super Cereal Plus, with dairy protein vital for young children, and sent the baby for further treatment that should help her recover. The mother collected the ration for her two other children.
The urgency of our work could not be more clear. To assist hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese civilians who are bearing the brunt of this conflict, WFP and other humanitarian agencies have faced enormous obstacles in trying to reach remote, conflict-affected communities like Nyal. We are finding ways to overcome those obstacles – like the airdrops I witnessed in Nyal – but it is absolutely critical that all parties to the conflict allow the safe passage of our humanitarian assistance, and that the international community provide the resources to meet those needs.
The women and children of South Sudan deserve that much. And more than anything, they deserve peace.