When you land in the village of Loth, the first thing you notice is how empty and quiet it is. Nothing remains there except a few empty tents. When fighting broke out a few weeks ago, people ran, leaving behind their food, personal belongings, and supplies. They headed into the swamps and fled to nearby islands to seek safety.
I recently made the trip along with my teammates from Concern Worldwide, an international NGO that is responding to famine in Leer County, South Sudan. The crisis here is fueled by the seemingly endless conflict that has caused over a million South Sudanese to flee the country.
Our local partner on the ground, Nile Hope, helps us gather our things before we set off for the island of Kok. Five minutes into our journey, I am told to take off my shoes. Ahead of me in the swamp, I can see women carrying bags on their heads, quickly making their way among the tall reeds. When our guide tells me the water is only ankle deep, I breathe a sigh of relief. But walking barefoot next to the river, it starts to dawn on me that this wouldn't be so simple: the ground is strewn with rocks and broken twigs that cut the bottom of my feet. And then, there is the mud. I sink into it up to my knees, struggling the entire way. What should have been a thirty-minute walk takes me an hour. But this is dry season. When people fled in the rainy season, the muddy swamp waters reached their chests.
With support from Concern, Nile Hope runs nutrition programming here and in the surrounding areas. We treat malnourished children and mothers, giving them specially formulated food to help them recover. They are monitored in our programs, and so far, more than 100 children have been successfully treated from malnutrition since we started in December. But there is a long way to go: more than 500 remain in the program.
It is in one of our clinics that I meet a young mother I will never forget. Her son is being treated for malnutrition at our center. He's only four, and very skinny. In her arms is her daughter, just six weeks old. She tells me how six months prior, in July, she fled fighting in her town. Separated from her husband, she took off into the rivers wading through the chest-high waters carrying her son. She didn't have any food, and all of her possessions had been burned, including her home. She says she was terrified of being raped – or killed.
I look at the squirming baby in her arms and quickly do the math. I interrupt her to confirm what I already know: when she ran, she was several months pregnant. I'm stunned, as she describes surviving off the roots of water lilies, occasionally eating fish caught in the rivers.
I recall my own trip through the mud, and how much I struggled. I cannot even imagine fleeing with a young son, while pregnant, alone, and terrified. That's not to mention that the journey she took was several hours longer than mine, through waters that reached as high as her shoulders.
The woman is relatively safe now, but she still doesn't have enough to eat. Her family relies on food distributions, and when those supplies run out, she resorts to cooking water lilies or fruits from surrounding trees. Mercifully, there is fish. She's still afraid that fighting might break out again, and more than anything, she desperately wants to go home.
Unfortunately, her story isn't unique. During the course of my trip I spoke to many men and women who share similar tales. One thing remains clear: the people here need our help, now more than ever. Concern plans on scaling up its programming, aiming to reach more people, particularly those isolated in the islands. The communities here all want the same thing: to be able to take care of their families. But what they want most of all? Peace.
We need your help! Follow this link to Concern Worldwide to lend a helping hand to the urgent food crisis.