FeaturesHumanitarian crises

Hunger amid tragedy for South Sudan refugees

As fears grow of new violence in the world's newest nation, refugees in Ethiopia relive the terror of the conflict.

| Humanitarian crises, War & Conflict, Refugees, South Sudan, Africa

By

Hannah McNeish

By

Peter Nicholls

Lietchor, Ethiopia - The water at the Lietchor refugee camp has gone from waist to knee high, but it was still deep enough last month for a five-year-old to drown as his mother went to collect her weekly grain rations.

"I had a boy and he drowned and I no longer have him," Nyabong Yual told Al Jazeera, her shaking hands folding and unfolding as she spoke.

This camp of gnarled plastic-sheeted tents - on the border of South Sudan and Ethiopia - is home to a quarter of the 200,000 people who have fled an 11-month-long and increasingly brutal civil war.

But the hunger and tragedy that stalked them on their long journey from ransacked, razed and blood-soaked villages in South Sudan has followed them here.

"I tried so much to make him alive again. I took him to the clinic but there was nothing anyone could do," said Yual, her seven-year-old daughter Nyakume pulling desperately at her skirt. The little girl with the saddest gaze stood helpless watching her brother Nyanyema flail then float just metres from home. 

She hasn't spoken of him since his body was laid out for camp residents to cry over as they held their children a little closer.

Nor has Nyakume spoken of the attack on her village in Nasir, in South Sudan's Upper Nile state, last December, when she watched soldiers going door to door executing civilians without mercy.

"Most of the people in Nasir died that day. Children, women and men were shot," said Yual, recounting how she ran dragging frozen-faced children behind her. "There were so many people dying." 

In South Sudan's capital, Juba, old wounds left to fester from decades of war with Sudan  in December ripped open an ethnic divide in a country that only raised its flag three-years ago. 

Media for hate 

But what started as a political spat between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar - former guerrilla leaders who once fought against Khartoum, then each other in the 1980s - has killed tens of thousands of people. 

Both sides have spent tens of millions of dollars on weaponry and have used the rainy season to organise their forces for major fighting.

- Casie Copeland, International Crisis Group

Rights groups have reported  shocking new levels of violence  towards civilians, including the  rape and slaughter of toddlers , pregnant women and nuns, and the use of media to disseminate  hate speech  to rally people to commit massacres and rape along ethnic lines.

Fighting has sent nearly two million people running from their homes, and only slowed in recent months because of heavy downpours during the rainy season.

But as roads start to dry up, the war is already heating up again.

"Both sides have spent tens of millions of dollars on weaponry and have used the rainy season to organise their forces for major fighting," said Casie Copeland, South Sudan analyst for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank.

"The next round is likely to be accompanied by more mass atrocities, widespread displacement and famine."

Both China, South Sudan's major oil client, and the United States, its main political backer, have failed to stop its neighbours from joining a proxy war, or exert economic pressure on a  hugely corrupt  country that relies wholly on international aid and oil.

Months of peace talks held in Ethiopia and brokered by regional leaders - who at various  points of frustration  have called South Sudanese leaders "warmongers" and "stupid" - have led to ceasefires that are shattered within hours.

Copeland said the talks are so "disconnected from the reality on the ground", because of their exclusion of military commanders and government hardliners, that any deal struck would be instantly undone.

"Commanders have made it clear that they will not acknowledge any deal signed in Addis Ababa and will carry on fighting," she said.

Seeping hatred

Heavy clashes have already been reported in South Sudan's main oil-producing state Unity, and forces are also spreading out into neighbouring oil-rich Upper Nile and Jonglei states.

While many men have stayed to fight, hatred has slowly seeped into the minds of the many women and children sheltering in refugee camps that bristle with stories of schoolchildren being gunned down and pregnant women ripped apart.

The will to survive has twisted into an insatiable craving for revenge.

"My elder brothers were killed and Nasir was destroyed, so I need to go back immediately and fight as soon as the road is dry," said 19-year-old Chol Gatkuoth while noisily chewing gum.

"I used to be a student but now I won't be one unless there's peace, so I'm a fighter," he said, stressing the need to be South Sudanese and not a refugee, even if it means dying.

Even small children speak longingly of joining fathers and brothers on the battlefields, an all too realisable dream in a war reportedly already involving at least 11,000 child soldiers.

[My children] were so thin I almost could not see them. I had to just drag them along.

- Mary Nyabang, refugee 

As border points become passable, aid agencies in Ethiopia fear a new influx into disastrous camps such as Lietchor built on floodplains that duly flooded.

"The biggest fear is that people come in massive numbers like in the first semester of 2014 and we have not found a site to put them," said Johan Heffinck, who heads the European Commission's Aid programme in Ethiopia.

His fears over "making another decision in a hurry" because of a lack of allocated land are real for the refugees struggling in Lietchor.

Aid in peril

Mary Nyabang escaped a December attack on Akobo in Jonglei, in which dozens of her neighbours were killed. She arrived at Lietchor with her children, aged three and six, half-dead from the 30-day walk.

"They were so thin I almost could not see them. I had to just drag them along."

Many others in a group of about 500 survivors were left where they fell.  "People were dying on the way. Old women and children were dying of hunger," Nyabang said.

After two days in Lietchor, with no toilets and no food, she said she thought her children would die and she still fears for them even with a clinic and food.  "My children can't swim and I'm scared that when I'm away, they will drown," she said.

Refugee Nyabang Yual and her daughter Nyakume at the Leitchour refugee camp [Peter Nicholls]

Yual said she is still in shock over her son's death.

"I left South Sudan because of the war and came here for safety, but I was put in the water and the water took my child."

Yual said she lives in constant fear that her daughter will drown, and her baby will succumb to a sickness caused by eating grain that sends the infant to the hospital every day.

"I've been told by the doctors that I don't have any more breast milk, but there is no milk here," she said, cradling her small 18-month-old whose wails of pain can last the whole day.

"Her stomach is so big because she has to eat what the big people eat," she said, gently rocking her child.

"In South Sudan, I could predict my future. Now, my husband is there and and I don't know how to feed myself. I've lost hope."

Aid agencies are also panicking. The $10m per month that the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) needs to feed the 200,000 people here runs out next month.

"If we don't get funding, that will pose a huge problem of protection," said Abdou Dieng, WFP's Ethiopia director.

Dieng said a lack of food could force women out of the camps to prostitute themselves, and people who have spent months  surviving on leaves and swamp water  will perish on arrival.

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