The sun has yet to rise when the soldiers arrive. The gunshots wake up everyone. Families scramble to get out of their houses in time. Children, mothers and elderly people run to safety as plumes of smoke rise from the village.
It’s a familiar routine in South Sudan these days and it’s what happened in Nyaneng Gatwuol Rier’s hometown of Durbuony in February, hours before the United Nations declared a famine in her war-stricken home county of Mayendit, in the former Unity state in South Sudan.
I met her a few weeks later, as she sat under a tree in neighboring Panyijar county. She and her six children arrived here after a punishing 16-hour walk through the swamps. Her husband? “He was killed,” she said, not even flinching.
Panyijar county is nestled at the edges of the Sudd, the world's largest wetlands. Its dozens of islands are under opposition control and have become places of refuge for ethnic Nuer communities fleeing government attacks.
In early March, I visited these wetlands, and met with many people who had fled their homes because of hunger and conflict.
As I traveled to the islands by canoe through the tall grass and reeds of the wetlands, I saw small groups of people arriving on pirogues or on foot from the northern famine-afflicted counties of Mayendit and Leer, making their way under an unforgiving sun through the often muddy, waist-high waters.
On the islands, skinny children sucked on the sweet fibers of fallen coconuts. Food is scarce. Water lily roots dry in the sun. Ground up, they make a sour-tasting porridge with low caloric value. Adults sit under the trees, with little to do. All wait for the promised food distributions.
One of those I met was Zakariah Lew Machar, who is about 70. He arrived from Leer county two months ago. “We came here because of hunger,” he said. For the past three years, he and the other men from his village have not been able to cultivate crops: “If you go to the field, you can be killed. In 2014, three people from the village, including a 4-year-old boy, were shot dead by the soldiers in the fields.”
In 2015, more than a year into the civil war that broke out in South Sudan between those loyal to President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and his former vice-president Riek Machar, a Nuer, government forces and local youth militias led an offensive against opposition-controlled areas, attacking and burning village after village in Machar’s home region. There, they killed hundreds of civilians, raped women and girls and stole thousands of heads of cattle. Those are the areas where the famine has now been declared.
And while opposition forces also committed abuses in other parts of the country—including killings, rapes, abductions and recruitment of child soldiers —crimes against civilians committed by government troops since 2016 are by and large responsible for today’s dire humanitarian situation. Yet, none of those who orchestrated or tolerated these abuses were ever charged by the government, and only two commanders were sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council.
Despite extensive documentation of those horrible crimes over the past three years, the government has consistently denied any wrongdoing in its communications with Human Rights Watch. Meanwhile, the international community has failed to respond with coercive or punitive measures against government and opposition forces. Those responsible for the violence were left emboldened.
In December 2016, the U.N. Security Council failed to establish an arms embargo over South Sudan and sanction some of the top commanders because some of its members—Japan and Egypt among others—thought it was best to give the government and opposition a chance to end abuses against civilians that both sides have long denied.
Donors should know that there is no way out of this man-made food crisis without addressing the human rights violations that led to it in the first place. Farmers will not return to their lands if they continue to fear government or opposition attacks. Families will not rebuild their livelihoods if they have to contemplate the likelihood of soldiers destroying them again. Without addressing the question of impunity—including through the swift establishment of a proposed African Union hybrid court among other mechanisms—money spent on the famine response will be nothing more than a plaster on a bleeding artery.
After the 2015 attacks, a number of civilians returned to their home towns. Nyakuoth Lieth Yang, a 48-year-old mother of six was among them. “The soldiers kept on telling us that we could return to our village and that they would protect us. We trusted them,” she told me.
But in late February, the soldiers came back to her town. They carried not promises but guns. “They burned every house in Ritgok. All of our clothes were burned. We just had time to run out of the home with the children.”
After more than three years of a ruthless war, famine is but the latest of the many man-made predicaments to hit South Sudanese civilians. The people I met in Panyijar county are tired and hopeless. They need food and medicine, that is for sure. But more than anything else; they need us to ensure that the armed parties to the conflict stop attacking them.