With the ground exploding around her and bullets whizzing past, Ruth* and her mother didn’t have time to think about what they were leaving behind. They yelled for Ruth’s young brothers and sisters to come and scoop up the youngest. No time to consider how they would cope without their crops, their cattle, their home. They started running.
Soon, Ruth would have to leave her mother behind as well. “They used very heavy bullets. Big weapons,” Ruth says. “My mother was with us when we started running, but I saw her falling next to us. She had been shot. Killed.”
Ruth and her siblings walked for seven days before they felt they were out of harm’s reach, sleeping among the bushes wherever the night found them. Eventually, they arrived in Akobo, exhausted and hungry.
This is the kind of extraordinary, extreme, horrific story that has become almost commonplace in parts of South Sudan. Ruth is one of 25,000 people to arrive in Akobo in the past year. One of four million people who have fled their homes since the war started four years ago. And one of over 600,000 people Oxfam is working hard to support.
Famine looms again
One million people are now on the brink of famine in South Sudan after a harvest season in which rains fell on abandoned and charred plots; this in a country once touted as the future bread basket of Africa.
The situation here is getting worse, which is the only way things can go if the war continues. So, what can we do? For now, we have to help people keep going – to make it through until they have the peace they desperately need.
While talks to end the war continue with no end in sight, people across South Sudan are straining every last sinew to keep their families alive. Take Sarah*, a new mother of twins I met in Nyal last year. Before her new boys were a couple of months old, fighting came to their town in Leer County, where famine was declared last year. Their only path to safety was through the Sudd, an immense swamp dotted with remote islands.
Struggle for survival
In blistering 40-degree heat, she waded through the water, carrying her children for several days until they reached one of the islands. With little growing on the dry and sandy ground, she had to search for water lily bulbs for her family to eat.
“We lived like this for two months before the sound of guns closed in again,” she said.
By then, Sarah was weak and her children badly malnourished. When Oxfam staff found her, one of her boys, who was now seven months old, weighed less than when he was born. Under an agreement Oxfam has with local canoe drivers – partly funded by Australian Aid – the organisation helped her pay to get herself and her family to the mainland, a two-day journey.
At last she was able to get them emergency treatment at a clinic, and when I last saw her she and her family were regaining their health. But the battle she had to fight just to bring her family back to some kind of normality is absolutely staggering.
Fleeing war and hunger
Occasionally you can see a glimpse of what South Sudan life could be like in better times.
In Bor, a town devastated in the early days of the war, but now recovering gradually after three years away from the front line, I met Rebecca*. She had lost her entire herd of cattle to armed raiders last year.
Left with no way of feeding her family, she turned to vegetable farming. Oxfam helped her out with some seeds and tools and she took it from there.
“When this garden is going well, we produce so much that you can’t carry it to the market on your own. I hire a motorbike and strap it on to that instead,” she said.
Fewer and fewer people are in a position to grow their own food though. In the especially fertile south, Amnesty International last year reported civilians attacked and murdered and their homes burnt. Many parts of this land which used to provide food for the country are now deserted. Most of those who can flee have done so.
Oxfam is there
The past couple of months have rightly prompted self-reflection and further change within Oxfam. There has been a great deal of anger and sadness at the despicable behaviour of a small number of staff in our organisation. But we are resolved not only to put it right, but to keep doing what we are good at too – supporting people and saving lives.
Last year, the dedication of our staff and supporters helped Oxfam assist over half a million people here in South Sudan, with the support of the Australian Agency of International Development (AusAID) and generous donations from many Australians.
As bullets continue to fly, fields go untended and the economy buckles under siege from a dismal war economy, Oxfam will continue doing everything we can to help keep people going.
*Names changed for their safety.