War and hunger drive South Sudan displacement
Sitting on the swept dirt floor, 31 people who fled home after years of war left them with nothing to eat take turns chewing at the dry flesh of a palm nut.
They are mostly mothers with young children, and one older man at the back anxiously cradling his sick son. Everyone looks gaunt and bewildered, and this might be their only meal today, but at least here they are safe. "There is still little food, and the children are still sick, but there is no gunfire," says Nyepach Benyluok, who guessed her age at 25.
They walked for a week to escape a place in the grip of one of the world's worst hunger crises, where three-quarters of a million people today survive mostly on wild plants, water lilies, and swampfish: South Sudan's Unity State.
They are among 2.4 million people across the country officially classified as facing a 'crisis' or 'emergency' of food insecurity, according to Fewsnet, the global body mandated to monitor such situations. Of those, 1.6 million are displaced from their homes either because of the war, or the hunger that followed, or both.
Conflict and persecution pushed record numbers of people around the world to flee by the end of 2014: 59.5 million, according to the UN's Refugee Agency. While the root causes of displacement vary, there is little sign that the trend slowed in 2015.
South Sudan, the world's youngest country, was thrown back into war on 15 December 2013, when months of political tensions erupted into a gun fight between rival factions of the presidential guard. Spreading violence first led people to abandon their homes and villages, but sustained hunger with little hope of harvests to ease their suffering sent them on the long, risky walks to safety far away.
"The hunger and the fighting became so bad, there was nothing left to eat at all."
In October, a report from 12 humanitarian agencies operating in South Sudan, including the UN's World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organization, said 80 per cent more people here were "severely food and nutrition insecure" than the year before.
In the worst-affected areas, including the parts of Unity State that Benyluok and her group fled, "humanitarian action [was] urgently needed to prevent escalating malnutrition and death", warned the report, from the South Sudan Technical Working Group for food security analysis.
Yet since then, aid agencies have not been able to work freely where they are most needed. Fresh fighting erupted in Leer, Unity's capital soon after the report was published. Skirmishes continued elsewhere. Monitors report repeated violations of a peace deal agreed in August.
By now, the situation has likely become worse. "Food insecurity is likely to deteriorate significantly from January through March," in Unity and two other states, Upper Nile and Jonglei, Fewsnet warned.
That is why it was time to leave, according to Benyluok. "The hunger and the fighting became so bad, there was nothing left to eat at all," she says. "There was no choice but to come here, even though we are still hungry, and the children are sick, and we have nothing, not even a mat to sleep on at night."
Nyawich Bangot sits nearby and nods in agreement, her baby daughter listless in her lap. "There were so many random killings: men were killed randomly, even children were killed randomly," she says. "Our houses with our food stored inside were all destroyed, food we grew with our own hands to keep us going during the hard times.
"The children are sick and we have nothing."
"Without that, there was no way to survive. We realised we had to go. Even on the way, people collapsed because they were weak from a lack of food, but you cannot stop to help them, they were too many. Many people were left in the bush."
This group of 31 people are among a trickle of about 350 individuals who recently reached the relative safety of Rumbek, the capital of Lakes State, a week's walk south of Unity's worst-affected regions.
More are likely on their way. The fighting, between forces loyal to South Sudan's president and those allied to his former vice-president, mean farmers have repeatedly failed to plant crops. Harvests were now one-tenth of normal yields in some parts of Unity, Fewsnet found.
Fewsnet's South Sudan Food Security Outlook for October 2015 to March 2016 reported market prices had sky-rocketed over the previous 12 months. Sorghum, a staple here, more than doubled in price in Rumbek, and was 140 per cent more expensive in the national capital, Juba.
A fall in the value of the South Sudan pound against the US dollar, coupled with a scarcity of fuel, has made hauling in goods prohibitively expensive. Few people have money to spend anyway, and most markets in Unity, Jonglei and Upper Nile are closed.
Studies found acute malnutrition rates in conflict-affected areas were already "extremely high" at between 20 and 34 per cent, more than twice the World Health Organization's "emergency" threshold of 15 per cent. "Mortality rates are likely to rise," up to March, Fewsnet stated.
"On the way, people collapsed because they were weak from a lack of food."
"People arrive here hungry, thirsty and exhausted, and some are ill," says Kannavee Suebsang, who heads UNHCR's field office in Rumbek. The agency provides people displaced inside South Sudan with what they need to set up a temporary home: pots, pans, and plates, plastic sheeting for shelter, blankets, sleeping mats, water cans and mosquito nets.
Sustained funding to UN appeals was crucial to help people like Benyluok, and Bangot, and their families and friends who made it to Rumbek, Suebsang said. Three days after the group arrived, they were registered by government officials, the first stage in providing the emergency help they walked all this way to find.
"UNHCR and its partners cannot yet access these places where these people are coming from to help," Suebsang says. "We're expecting a lot more people to make the journey here in the coming weeks."