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It’s 10 in the morning and hundreds of women and children have formed a long line through the bush or stand huddled under trees. I’ve seen many food distributions—but never in one place so many children with the tell-tale, orange-tinted hair and pot bellies of malnutrition. A gangly, 20-something man in a red t-shirt and ragged grey trousers walks up and down the line, snapping a thin branch stripped of leaves to stop children jumping the queue.

It is April 1998 and Sudan is still one country in the midst of a civil war between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the government in Khartoum. I’m in Bahr el Ghazal, a region gripped by one of Sudan’s worst famines.

At the time few data were available but the 1998 toll was eventually estimated at between 70,000 and several hundred thousand dead. Their deaths were caused, at least indirectly, by repeated attacks on civilians and the destruction of “objects indispensable to their survival”, both of which can be war crimes. The despoliation, theft and diversion of cattle, crops and food aid, including by the SPLA, coupled with restrictions on humanitarian aid to displaced people, tipped many communities over the fine line separating food insecurity from famine.

Devastating crisis

Fast forward to 2014. Nine years after the peace agreement that ended Sudan’s long war and three years after South Sudan gained independence, Africa’s youngest country is grappling with a new round of conflict which has created another devastating humanitarian crisis.

In the past eight months, clashes between the forces of the president, Salva Kiir, and the former vice-president, Riek Machar, have displaced 1.5m South Sudanese. Once again, families are on the move, fleeing to neighbouring countries, squatting in squalid United Nations camps or struggling to survive in the bush on wild foods. The UN estimates that almost 4m people need emergency aid and at least 235,000 children are suffering severe malnutrition.

In a recent report Human Rights Watch described the spiraling, ethnically-driven crimes that followed the shoot-out between Dinka and Nuer soldiers in Juba, the capital, on the night of December 15. Dinka security-force members went house-to-house, rounding up and executing Nuer men of fighting age. In one harrowing example, 200-400 Nuer men were shot dead in an old police station.

We traced the domino effect as news spread to other towns, facilitated by ubiquitous mobile phones, triggering Nuer troops in Bor, Bentiu and elsewhere to mutiny and conduct reprisal attacks on Dinka civilians. The report charts the grim months of back-and-forth clashes over key towns like Bentiu, Bor and Malakal, the massive destruction of buildings and markets, the attacks on hospitals and clinics, the looting of relief goods and vehicles, the theft of food aid.

Rural areas were also affected, with tens of thousands of people driven from their ransacked homes. Humanitarian agencies have had difficulty reaching these displaced rural communities, partly due to the fighting and partly because of South Sudan’s minimal infrastructure. Amid the conflict in much of the Greater Upper Nile, many have had no chance to plant crops, meaning that there will be little to harvest and even more dependence on food aid.

Hunger and death

The UN and other humanitarian agencies refrain, for reasons both technical and political, from calling the conditions a famine. Instead they speak of “catastrophic food insecurity” and “the world’s worst food crisis”. But no matter what you call it, many South Sudanese are facing hunger, disease and death.

Conflict routinely disrupts the lives and livelihoods of civilians, from Syria to the Central African Republic. So why in South Sudan does it almost inevitably produce so many deaths from disease and starvation?

Analysing the causes of famine is always complicated and food security is always fragile in this region, with many pastoralist communities facing some food deficits even in a good year. But the South Sudan crisis is also deeply rooted in the methods of warfare used by commanders over decades.

In fact, 1998 wasn’t the first time the SPLA and other southern Sudanese armed groups committed abuses which contributed to famine. In the early 1990s Human Rights Watch documented the SPLA’s deliberate attempts to starve civilians as a method of combat in its war with the Sudanese government. Kiir, then a top SPLA commander, was directly implicated in this strategy around the town of Torit. Inter-SPLA fighting in 1991-93, sparked largely by Machar’s break with the SPLA, and the manipulation and diversion of food aid by the armed groups, led to several hundred thousand deaths from disease and starvation in the “hunger triangle,” an area in the contemporary Jonglei state.

Kiir, Machar and other senior commanders in the current conflict are recidivists. They have repeatedly been in charge of forces which have carried out serious, widespread attacks on civilians and indulged in massive looting and theft of civilian property, including aid. It is these crimes—not drought or other natural causes—that are creating the conditions for famine today. And Kiir and Machar certainly know famine is looming, even if they did not deliberately intend to create mass starvation. In May, Kiir told the BBC: “The civilian population is going to face one of the worst famines that has ever been witnessed in South Sudan.”

Despite the protests from important donors and political partners, both sides have failed to rein in their abusive forces or hold them accountable. As diplomats and politicians sit at peace talks in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, the number of South Sudanese refugees grows—and the patience of the regional leaders facilitating the talks is running thin.

Serious abuses

While there’s no quick fix to South Sudan’s many problems, pressure needs to be exerted on Kiir and Machar to prevent and punish the serious abuses by their forces and let humanitarian agencies get aid to civilians in need. This requires a united multilateral effort, including with regional governments. And it means there must be consequences for the way both these leaders have allowed their forces to behave, failing to respect the laws of war.

The US and European Union have already introduced individual sanctions but have targeted only three people on both sides. The sanctions should be broadened and matched in the region. Senior commanders and politicians are more likely to have assets in Kenya and Uganda than in Europe or the US.

The UN and other humanitarian agencies refrain, for reasons both technical and political, from calling the conditions a famine. 

The UN Security Council should also impose individual sanctions and a comprehensive arms embargo on South Sudan. Given that both sides have committed serious crimes against the civilian population, and in all likelihood would commit more using fresh supplies of arms, an embargo is warranted. Indeed, news of an imminent Chinese arms shipment to the South Sudan government means it may even be overdue.

Up to 100,000 displaced people are living in UN camps and face attack if they leave them. The UN mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) undoubtedly saved lives by opening its gates but the rainy season has set in, making some camps almost uninhabitable. The UN and humanitarian agencies should ramp up efforts to get these people the basic shelter and other relief they desperately need and increase efforts to protect civilians outside the camps.


Finally, but perhaps most importantly for South Sudan’s long-term future, there is a need for accountability. Justice for past crimes was never a priority during the negotiations that led to the 2005 agreement which ended Sudan’s long war and paved the road for southern independence. There were no criminal investigations of atrocities and victims had no redress. Leaders and mediators ignored the crimes in favor of expedient solutions, absorbing fighters into the government and military forces and rewarding abusive leaders with power for brutalising their own people.

This pattern continued after independence, in intercommunal fighting and localised rebellions, but should not be allowed to do so again. Any peace agreement should end the cycle of violence by helping ensure fair, credible trials. The parties should be required to make a clear commitment to a justice process, which could include a hybrid tribunal, a request for investigation by the International Criminal Court or other judicial mechanism. Commanders on both sides should be investigated for the unlawful civilian killings, the rapes and the destruction—including the attacks on and looting of deliveries of humanitarian aid, which have led to civilian deaths from starvation and disease.

There is no offence of “creating a famine” under international law but in a conflict—civil or international—“objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population” may not be attacked. They have a protected status as civilian objects and because their protection goes hand in hand with the prohibition on using starvation of the civilian population as a weapon of war.

Some day a court may ask this question: if Kiir and Riek Machar knew about looming famine, how did the way they waged their brutal war contribute and what, if anything, did they do to prevent it?

No one can reverse the thousands of deaths, the suffering and destitution which occurred in the 1990s or even in the past eight months. But Kiir and Machar and all of those with leverage on the warring parties should use their power now to guarantee justice for those who have already died—and to ensure that tens of thousands more don’t join the final toll. 

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