LEKUANGOLE, South Sudan (AP) – After nearly a week hiding from the conflict, Kallayn Keneng saw two of his children die. “They cried and cried and said, ‘Mom, we need food,'” she said. But she had nothing to give. Too fragile to bury her 5 and 7-year-old children after days without eating, she covered their bodies with grass and left them in the forest.
Now the 40-year-old mourner awaits food aid, one of more than 30,000 people likely to be hungry in South Sudan’s Pibor County. The new discovery by international food security experts means that this may be the first part of the world hungry since one was declared in 2017 in another part of the country, then in the midst of civil war.
South Sudan is one of four countries with areas that could go hungry, warned the United Nations, along with Yemen, Burkina Faso and northeastern Nigeria.
Pibor County this year has witnessed deadly local violence and unprecedented floods that have hampered humanitarian aid efforts. On a visit to the city of Lekuangole this month, seven families told the Associated Press that 13 of their children died of hunger between February and November.
The head of the Lekuangole government, Peter Golu, said he had received unprecedented reports from community leaders that 17 children died of hunger there and in neighboring villages between September and December.
The report of the Hunger Review Committee, released this month by the Classification of the Integrated Food Security Phase, fails to declare hunger due to insufficient data. But famine is believed to be occurring, which means that at least 20% of families face extreme food gaps and at least 30% of children suffer from acute malnutrition.
But the government of South Sudan is not endorsing the report’s conclusions. If a famine were to occur, it would be seen as a failure, he says.
“They are making assumptions. … We are here dealing with facts, they are not on the ground, ”said John Pangech, chairman of South Sudan’s food security committee. The government says 11,000 people across the country are on the brink of starvation – much less than the 105,000 estimated by the new report by food security experts.
The government also expects 60% of the country’s population, or about 7 million people, to face extreme hunger next year, with the worst-hit areas in the northern states of Warrap, Jonglei and Bahr el Ghazal.
South Sudan is struggling to recover from a five-year civil war. Food security experts say the magnitude of the hunger crisis was mainly caused by the fighting. This includes outbreaks of violence this year between communities with alleged support from the government and the opposition.
The government “is not only denying the seriousness of what is happening, but it is denying the basic fact that its own military policies and tactics are responsible,” said Alex de Waal, author of “mass famine: 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 has been “armed” by people acting in their own interests, said the head of the UN mission in South Sudan, David Shearer. Violence prevented people from farming, blocked supply routes, set markets on fire and killed humanitarian workers.
Families in Lekuangole said their crops were destroyed by fighting. They now subsist on leaves and fruits.
During the violence in July, Martin, Kidrich Korok’s 9-year-old son, separated from his family and spent more than a week in the forest. When he was found severely malnourished, it was too late.
“He always told me that he would study hard and do something good for me when I grew up,” said Korok, crying. “Even while he was dying, he continued to assure me that I shouldn’t be worried.”
The team at the health clinic in Lekuangole registered 20 severely malnourished children in the first week and a half of December, more than five times the number of cases in the same period last year, said the nurse, Gabriel Gogol.
The floods cut off most road access to the city of Pibor and its best medical care, forcing some seriously ill children to travel for three days along the river on fragile plastic rafts.
Pibor County officials say they do not understand why the government of South Sudan is not recognizing the scale of the famine.
“If people are saying in the (capital) that there is no hunger in Pibor, they are lying and want people to die,” said David Langole Varo, who works for the government’s humanitarian arm in the Greater Pibor Administrative Area.
In the city of Pibor, malnourished mothers and children wait hours outside health clinics, waiting for food.
In a joint statement last week, three UN agencies called for immediate access to parts of Pibor County, where people were facing catastrophic levels of hunger.
The World Food Program has faced challenges in delivering aid this year. Approximately 635 tons of food were stolen from Pibor County and Jonglei State, enough to feed 72,000 people, and a drop of food in the air at Lekuangole killed an elderly woman in October.
The WFP said it needs more than $ 470 million over the next six months to tackle the hunger crisis.
Families are now concerned about the resurgence of fighting as the dry season approaches.
Sitting in a clinic run by Doctors Without Borders in the city of Pibor, Elizabeth Girosdh watched her 8-month-old twins fight over their breast milk. The 45-year-old woman lost her crops during fighting in her village of Verteth in June. One of the twins is severely malnourished.
“Sometimes I try to breastfeed, but I can’t and the children cry and cry all night,” she said. “If there is not enough food, I am afraid of losing it.”