John Mathiek Bawar shows off his registration token as queues up to receive food assistance from WFP and its partners in Bentiu, South Sudan. WFP/George Fominyen
The crisis in South Sudan has forced more than 700,000 people to flee their homes in search of safety. The UN World Food Programme has so far provided food assistance for around 250,000 displaced people, and is working to extend more assistance to people we can reach outside UN peacekeeping bases, including those who are returning to devastated towns like Bentiu in Unity State.
BENTIU – At a soccer stadium in Bentiu, John Mathiek Bawar happily shows off the ration card that indicates he is duly registered to receive food from the UN World Food Programme and its partners.
Bawar is among thousands of residents who are gradually returning to the town, which is the capital of Unity State, after fierce fighting forced them to flee to nearby bushes, swamps and villages along the White Nile River.
“I hid with my family for 18 days in the bush,” said Bawar. “We were surviving on plants we pulled out of the river and a little bit of sorghum we had carried with us,” the 31-year-old said.
Bentiu has changed hands twice since fighting erupted in mid-December between factions of the South Sudanese army. After forces backing President Salva Kiir retook the town in mid-January, local authorities have been urging civilians who fled to return.
Many who have heeded to the call have come back to a desolate city, devastated by the fighting. The streets are mostly bare except for patrolling soldiers. Many homes have been destroyed, looted or burnt to the ground. Businesses and offices, including those of WFP and other aid agencies, have been ransacked and looted.
A few markets are reopening, but so far there is very little food for sale, and most people have lost all sources of livelihood.
“Everything in our house is gone, even mattresses, so me, my wife and my children, and our relatives have to sleep on mats on the floor,” said Mawar, a father of six children.
‘I am a trader and had some money in the bank, but when we came back the bank was destroyed. We don’t have a single coin or South Sudanese Pound. I am poor now. We don’t have any food to eat,” he added.
It was with much relief that he greeted news from community leaders that WFP and its partners were going to provide food assistance to returning residents at the Bentiu Independence Stadium and Bentiu Primary School.
Trucks loaded with sorghum, yellow split-peas, vegetable oil and salt moved to the distribution sites from the UN peacekeeping base, where WFP has stored the food stocks salvaged from the agency’s looted warehouses in Bentiu.
“We have been distributing food to the IDPs in the peacekeeping base since the end of last year, and now it is important to do all we can to ensure that the people who have come back to town don’t go to sleep hungry,” said Francis Sarpong, the head of the WFP office in Bentiu.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that the some 720,000 people are internally displaced across South Sudan because of the crisis. The majority – close to 90 percent – are sheltering in locations outside UN bases.
The distribution to returning residents in Bentiu is part of WFP efforts to reach as many of those people with food assistance as possible as they start to rebuild their lives, and the agency is overcoming enormous challenges to do that. Teams have been deployed to remote localities in Jonglei, Upper Nile and Unity states, which have been most affected by the fighting.
A report by WFP food security analysts has found that these states were also the most food-insecure prior to the conflict. Moreover, these are the areas with the highest cereal production deficits in the country, and the areas where people spend the highest proportion of their income on food.
“I want to thank the organisations like WFP that have come to our help with food. Now I am hoping my government – which called us to leave the bush where we were hiding and come back to town – will also support me and my children, because we have nothing,” Mawar said.