By Lily Partland, Save the Children Australia
In the remote town of Akobo, South Sudan, all seems calm and peaceful in the early afternoon, but this is a place full of suffering.
At Save the Children’s stabilisation centre, dozens of women sit on woven bamboo mats and plastic chairs waiting to have their babies and children assessed or treated for malnutrition.
Makwach*, with her hair cropped close, has sad eyes that crease into a small smile when I introduce myself.
She has five children, including eight-month-old twin girls called Nyalith* and Nyandeng*, who she nurses in her lap as they fitfully doze. Both are being treated for severe malnutrition.
“When I was pregnant, there was not enough food,” she tells me through an interpreter. “I tried to breastfeed but there was nothing.”
Makwach’s daughters have been in treatment for three weeks, eating a high nutrient peanut paste. They are gaining weight and their health is improving. But she says, “For my other children, there is no food.”
Makwach says sometimes they eat leaves to survive, she can collect and sell firewood for a little money, and if they’re lucky they catch fish in the river.
Getting food has been a problem since the civil conflict escalated about four years ago. Unpredictable outbreaks of fighting in the region have made agricultural produce unreliable and one favoured method of warfare – cattle raiding – has left many without their only assets.
“Before, there were cattle and goats and we used to grow vegetables in a little garden. Now there are no cattle and no goats – they were all taken.”
Makwach tells me she is losing hope. “My children are suffering. It is a very bad future, because there is nothing to feed them.”
Three days of walking
Nearby sits 19-year-old Nyaliak* with her only son, Chuol*.
She was married at the age of 15 – not at all unusual in this region – but her husband left to fight with an armed group a few years ago and she hasn’t seen him since.
She comes from a village in the region but fled – alone with her son – to the town of Waat because of fighting.
She then fled to Akobo to stay with relatives and get help for her sick child. All up, she walked for three days to make it here to relative safety.
Pneumonia, malaria and malnutrition
Nyaliak’s son is very unwell. Chuol was treated for pneumonia, and is now being treated for malaria. he is also severely malnourished, and has lost the use of his legs. “Two things are not making me happy. My husband is not here with me and my child is sick,” she says, her eyes downcast.
“When I arrived here there was no food but yesterday they gave out rations for displaced people.” They were given sorghum, lentils and oil.
One step away from famine
Under the system widely used to classify food insecurity, the region is just one step away from famine.
Save the Children and other NGOs are doing all they can to prevent places like this from sliding into famine and to save the lives of children like Chuol, Nyalith and Nyandeng.
But nutrition workers here at Akobo are seeing this crisis escalate. Last month, 348 children were treated here for severe acute malnutrition, with 142 new cases recorded.
Time is running out
The coming rains will bring with them the threat of waterborne diseases and other illnesses. These may prove too much for the compromised immune systems of the weakest – babies and children already suffering from illness and malnutrition.
Time is running out but with enough support, we can still stop this famine in its tracks and save the lives of the most vulnerable.