Mom, we need food’: Thousands in South Sudan near famine

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After nearly a week of hiding from conflict, the South Sudanese woman watched two of her young children die

South Sudan — After nearly a week of hiding from conflict, Kallayn Keneng watched two of her young children die. “They cried and cried and said, ‘Mom, we need food,'” she said. But she had nothing to give. Too frail to bury her 5-year-old and 7-year-old after days without eating, she covered their bodies with grass and left them in the forest.

Now the mourning 40-year-old awaits food aid, one of more than 30,000 people said to be in likely famine in South Sudan’s Pibor county. The new finding by international food security experts means this could be the first part of the world in famine since one was declared in 2017 in another part of the country then deep in civil war.

South Sudan is one of four countries with areas that could slip into famine, the United Nations has warned, along with Yemen, Burkina Faso and northeastern Nigeria.

Pibor county this year has seen deadly local violence and unprecedented flooding that have hurt aid efforts. On a visit to the town of Lekuangole this month, seven families told The Associated Press that 13 of their children starved to death between February and November.

The head of Lekuangole’s government, Peter Golu, said he received unprecedented reports from community leaders that 17 children had died from hunger there and in surrounding villages between September and December.

The Famine Review Committee’s report, released this month by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, stops short of declaring famine because of insufficient data. But famine is thought to be occurring, meaning at least 20% of households face extreme food gaps and at least 30% of children are acutely malnourished.

But South Sudan’s government is not endorsing the report’s findings. If a famine were occurring it would be seen as a failure, it says.

“They are making assumptions. … We are here dealing with facts, they are not on the ground,” said John Pangech, the chair of South Sudan’s food security committee. The government says 11,000 people across the country are on the brink of starvation — far less than the 105,000 estimated by the new report by food security experts.

he government also expects that 60% of the country’s population, or some 7 million people, could face extreme hunger next year, with the hardest hit areas in Warrap, Jonglei and Northern Bahr el Ghazal states.

South Sudan has been struggling to recover from a five-year civil war. Food security experts say the magnitude of the hunger crisis has been mostly created by the fighting. That includes bouts of violence this year between communities with alleged support from the government and opposition.

The government “is not only denying the severity of what is happening but is denying the basic fact that its own policies and military tactics are responsible,” said Alex de Waal, author of “Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine” and executive director of the World Peace Foundation.

More than 2,000 people have been killed this year in localized violence that’s been “weaponized” by people acting in their own interests, the head of the U.N. mission in South Sudan, David Shearer, has said. Violence has prevented people from cultivating, blocked supply routes, burned down markets and killed aid workers.

The World Food Program has faced challenges in delivering aid this year. Approximately 635 metric tons of food were stolen from Pibor county and Jonglei state, enough to feed 72,000 people, and an air drop of food in Lekuangole killed an elderly woman in October.

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