War & famine in Africa: Return of the third horsemam

  • The Economist
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Hunger & indifferenceHunger & indifference Famine menaces 20m people in Africa and Yemen ─ War, not drought, is the reason people are starving   

Panyijia/Maiduguri, Mar. 30.─ Outside a thatched hut in Panyijiar, in South Sudan, Nyakor Matoap, a 25-year-old woman, clutches the youngest of her three children. Dressed in a silky emerald shawl, she hides the baby, named Nyathol, underneath its folds. Her other children crowd happily enough around her legs. But the baby is in a bad way. Though almost a year old, he is scarcely larger than a newborn. When he cries, it is quiet and gasping, his tiny ribs pushing out his chest. His swollen head lolls uncomfortably on his emaciated frame. Asked whether he will survive, she replies simply, “I do not know.”

Before 2013 Mrs Matoap cultivated a patch of land near Leer, some 80km (50 miles) further north. But then civil war broke out in South Sudan, and her husband went to join rebel fighters. In August last year, government forces came into her village. They pulled the men out of their huts and shot them; the women fled. She found herself in the murky waters of the Sudd, a vast swamp which spreads either side of the White Nile. For seven months she has lived off wild fruit and the roots of water lilies. She last saw her husband in 2015, when her son was conceived. 

Though Panyijiar is friendly territory, and home to an aid camp run by the International Rescue Committee, she does not believe her ordeal is over. “I thought the war would never reach us in Leer,” she says, “so I cannot say that it won’t come here.”

In February Leer was one of two counties in South Sudan declared to be in a state of famine by the UN. Between them they are home to 100,000 people. It is the first time since 2011 that the term has been used and only the second since the organisation adopted the IPC scale, a scientific way of determining levels of food insecurity. Another 1.1m people live in areas in an “emergency” situation, one step short of famine, but where people are still dying from lack of food. Across South Sudan as a whole, the UN judges that some 250,000 children under the age of five suffer from “severe acute” malnutrition, meaning that if they do not receive treatment they will probably die. Some 5.8m people will rely on food aid this year.

South Sudan is not alone ...

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