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South Sudanese Civilians Fleeing Violence and Facing Famine


Vatican Radio - published on 09/03/14

Representative from humanitarian aid organization describes young country's needs.

The people of South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, are facing what could become a devastating famine.

It is estimated that hundreds of thousands are at risk of starvation as over a million people have been forced from their homes because of civil war and are unable to plant their crops and gather a harvest.  

Meanwhile negotiators for South Sudanese rebels this week denied signing a power-sharing deal to end the violence that started last December.

Sounding the alarm are humanitarian aid agencies such as Malteser International—the relief agency of the Sovereign Order of Malta—that is currently providing food and health care in South Sudan as well as emergency relief in refugee camps in neighboring Uganda.

Jan Gruss, program manager for Malteser International says his staff is distributing food aid as well as seeds and farming tools for the next planting season in the attempt to save thousands from starvation. Gruss says Malteser has been working in South Sudan since the late 1990s. Historically it has been involved mainly in the health sector, and is present in different locations in South Sudan. Currently, he says, there are four project locations in four different cities and a coordination center in the capital, Juba.

“We are currently implementing humanitarian assistance for the crisis situation in Maridi where at the moment 7,500 IDPs are sheltered” he said.

Gruss explains that Maridi, in the southwest of the country, is “not a hotspot of the conflict and that is why people are seeking shelter there.”

He talks of the large-scale program Malteser is conducting there for basic healthcare where the internally displaced people are living scattered in the area with the local communities, not in a camp. 

Gruss says the states they are fleeing from are mainly Upper Nile, Jonglei, Northern Bahr el Ghazal. Most of the IDPs are women and children because the men return to their homelands either to try to farm or to join the fighting.

Gruss explains there are three main reasons for the threat of widespread famine in the country. “There has always been food insecurity in the country because of the climate and the poor capacity people have for agriculture—they do not have big machinery, they don’t have fertilisers etc.,” he said. Second, people are not there for the planting season because the conflict forces them to flee. Third, it is very difficult for humanitarian organizations to deliver supplies in this crisis situation.

Right now, Gruss says, Malteser International is distributing staple foods such as corn, rice, beans, and cooking oil as well as seeds and farming tools for the next planting season. Both emergency and long term humanitarian assistance is needed, he said.

Gruss says Malteser is present in refugee camps outside South Sudan where it is involved mainly in projects to provide water, rainwater harvesting tanks, wells, tap stations, boreholes and health education programs.

Due to the decades of conflict, he points out, South Sudan is very underdeveloped: “All in all there are only about 80 km of tarred roads,” he said. Gruss says he will be travelling next week from Juba to the program office in Maridi—approximately 240 km. He predicts it will take him two days.

Gruss says he hopes that issues currently on the table of political negotiators will soon be settled and that every ethnic group be represented in parliament to continue the development work that has already been done in the past years.

It is also important he says to create good infrastructures.

“We are living in a time of many crises—like Iraq and Ukrainebut in South Sudan there is also a major crisis so hopefully this crisis will not be forgotten,” he said.

“There are 1.3 million displaced people in South Sudan:  that is 1 in every 7 persons. We are fearing a big food insecurity and hunger crisis, so hopefully South Sudan will not be forgotten in the next days and in the future,” he said.     

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