NAIROBI, 20 mars 2017
Jason Patinkin
Reporter and regular IRIN contributor who has covered South Sudan's civil war since December 2013

The declaration of famine in two counties of South Sudan last month led to immediate pledges of aid. Grave editorials called on Western governments to prioritise relief efforts to the needy, despite the shortcomings of the government and the ongoing civil war.

But a singular focus on sending more food may miss the mark. That's because in South Sudan's famine zone, more people die from bullets than starvation.

The famine was declared for Mayendit and Leer counties of southern Unity State, an area populated by various clans of the Nuer ethnic group. These clans are politically loyal to Riek Machar, who leads South Sudan's main rebel group, the SPLA-IO, and hails from Leer.

According to a February survey that food security experts analysed as part of the data used to declare famine, 4.1 in 10,000 people died per day across Mayendit county. That’s above the famine threshold of two hunger-related deaths per 10,000 people, which itself is about 10 times the average global death rate

But 73 percent of those deaths in Mayendit were from conflict, not starvation. That means more than two people per 10,000 died per day – the same catastrophic, out of control death rate of a famine – but the immediate cause was because they had been shot.

Other surveys tell a similar story. In Leer, there's no recent available mortality data, but a survey from February 2016 found that of the more than three people dying per 10,000 per day there, 57 percent were from conflict rather than starvation. 

third study released in December 2016 by REACH, a USAID-funded group, found conflict the leading cause of mortality in Leer and Mayendit, accounting for 49 percent of total deaths.

That means the war in southern Unity is so bad that even amid a famine, violent deaths still outpace starvation deaths.

To be clear, the high rate of conflict deaths does not mean Leer and Mayendit counties are not experiencing famine.

Displaced children on the island of Kok
Jason Patinkin
Displaced children find shelter on the small island of Kok

A famine requires, among other factors, that a population experiences two deaths per 10,000 people per day that are “related to hunger”. A violent death can also be “related to hunger” if, for instance, a hungry person ventures into an unsafe area in search of food and is shot, something that has been the case in southern Unity.

But the opposite is even more true. Southern Unity is a lush floodplain, full of fish and arable land. No one would die from hunger there if there wasn't conflict. The war has prevented people from planting, harvesting, fishing, and trading. Just as importantly, the conflict prevents relief workers from bringing enough food aid to reach hungry people.

“With active conflict in these places, it is very difficult for humanitarian assistance to be felt, because even when the food is distributed, sometimes it can be taken away [by armed groups],” explained Barack Kinanga, a food security expert with the International Rescue Committee.

The hunger facing people in southern Unity is not just a byproduct of the war, but the goal, many analysts suggest. Across the country, 5.8 million people are in need of food aid and more than 2.3 million – one in every five people in South Sudan – have been forced to flee their homes as a result of the conflict.

While SPLA-IO rebels have launched attacks (including on civilians), and thrown up barriers to aid, the death by violence and hunger in southern Unity is primarily the result of three scorched-earth campaigns waged by the government army (the SPLA), and its militia allies.

Draining the sea

The first campaign, led by the Justice and Equality Movement, a militia from Sudan's Darfur region that has fought for South Sudan's President Salva Kiir, took place in January 2014.

JEM stormed south from the Unity capital Bentiu and razed Leer, sending civilians and aid workers running for their lives. By the time aid groups returned in May 2014, children were already dying of malnutrition, though no famine was declared.

The next two campaigns were far more devastating. For seven months, beginning in late April 2015, SPLA-backed militia from the Bul and later Jaggey clans of the Nuer wreaked havoc across southern Unity.

Besides mass murder and sexual slavery, the militia torched villages, stole or destroyed grain and crops, looted cattle on an industrial scale, wrecked water points, shelled river ports to disrupt trade in foodstuffs, and either stole or blocked aid deliveries.

The goal was to annihilate the rebels’ support base by creating an “empty area” in central and southern Unity, according to a United Nations Panel of Experts report.

“SPLA armed forces were intent on rendering communal life unviable and prohibiting any return to normalcy following the violence,” the group said.

Nearly 8,000 people died by violence or drowning in the swamps while fleeing attacks in the 2015 campaign, according to a UN mortality study released early last year.

By the end of 2015, some 70,000 people had fled the affected region, mostly to government areas where aid workers were allowed to deliver food. Forty thousand people left behind were classified by the IPC to be in “famine conditions”.

The most recent campaign, from July 2016 and continuing into 2017, finally pushed Mayendit and Leer counties into what the UN and the government now officially describe as a famine.

Men carry an elderly woman through the swamps
Jason Patinkin
Men carry an elderly woman through the swamps

These attacks were carried out by SPLA-backed militia loyal to Taban Deng Gai, who hails from the Jikany Nuer clan in northeastern Unity state. Since the collapse of a peace and power-sharing deal with rebel leader Machar in 2016 and the return to civil war, the international community has recognised Taban, as he is popularly known, as the First Vice President.

The 2016-2017 campaign appears to have been just as brutal as the one of 2015, including rape, murder, and destruction of villages.

“A whole village would disappear,” said one aid worker, who visited repeatedly in 2016 but IRIN is keeping anonymous for safety reasons. “In your next visit, you'd find just piles of ash.”

As in 2015, soldiers targeted civilians and their livelihoods by stealing cattle, blocking aid, and destroying crops during fighting, which the REACH study said was the largest cause of food insecurity in the state. Destitute people have turned to gathering wild fruits, leaves, and fish to survive, but soldiers block access to even these emergency food sources.

“We found a case [in government-controlled southern Mayendit], the men with guns are basically disallowing anyone from accessing fishing areas,” the aid worker said.

“Pushed and pushed and pushed”

Throughout the chaos, aid groups have undertaken what at times was the largest single-country aid effort on Earth.

In 2014, they started dropping food from planes, which is rarely done. That wasn't enough, so they started “Rapid Response Missions”, where aid workers were helicoptered in to remote areas for one to two weeks at a time, quickly assessed needs, and distributed as much as food and medicine as possible before dropping into the next place. Those missions hadn't been done anywhere, ever.

When government militia started killing civilians who attended the rapid response missions and stealing their food, aid groups covertly handed out “emergency relief kits” – small packages of high-energy biscuits, fishing hooks, water purification tablets, and other lifesavers – by helicopter or canoe to families hiding in the bush.

This was a far cry from meeting the needs of people on the ground, but aid groups continued trying to reach them. Médecins Sans Frontières and the International Committee of the Red Cross kept coming back, even though soldiers looted or destroyed their compounds in Leer four times, including last July.

None of these efforts stopped the violence itself. Even the declaration of famine, the loudest alarm bell the aid world can ring, hasn't resulted in a ceasefire. Just days after the announcement, aid workers were forced to evacuate Mayendit yet again.

“We've pushed and pushed and pushed,” said World Food Programme spokeswoman Challiss McDonough. “But humanitarian assistance can only do so much on its own. It cannot end a conflict.”

For that, the international community needs to mobilise political action.

“This is a conflict-driven famine,” said Nicholas Haan of Singularity University, who led the development of the IPC and is on its independent Emergency Review Committee, which assessed the famine data for South Sudan.

“In addition to stop-gap humanitarian assistance, there needs to be extreme, extraordinary measures to tamp down the conflict in the area, whatever that looks like.”

Identifying the problem

For now, most commentators – besides activists George Clooney and John Prendergast – blame South Sudan's “man-made” famine on fighting between “armed groups”, rather than plainly accusing the government.

There are few journalists and researchers operating in the country, so most information comes from the UN mission, called UNMISS, and aid groups.

UNMISS often avoids commenting on incidents of violence. Aid groups, despite having by far the best network of contacts on both sides of the conflict, are also largely silent – even when they are the targets of violence – in the name of "neutrality".

The effect of this institutional silence and aversion to naming culprits is a wider illusion that atrocities aren't happening, or if they are, that all sides are equally culpable.

“One of the biggest lessons from southern Unity was that we, as a humanitarian community, needed to come together and be more vocal and honest about what we were seeing,” said one senior aid official, who worked closely on the response but spoke anonymously over career concerns.

“We had overwhelming anecdotal evidence to suggest that ethnic cleansing was under way [in 2015], but we were blocked by senior UN leadership from being able to say that,” the source added.

This village in Leer County was attacked by government forces a week after the photo was taken
Jason Patinkin
This village in Leer County was attacked by government forces a week after the photo was taken

The silence held even when relief workers themselves were attacked. UNMISS said nothing when men believed to have been from South Sudan's National Security Service beat up the mission’s deputy humanitarian coordinator at her home in Juba in July 2015. Later that year, MSF would not comment when three staff were killed, though they announced the incident to their employees. 

IRIN interviewed two other aid officials who worked closely on southern Unity. Both agreed with the assessment that aid groups operated under a culture of silence.

They said this phenomenon increased followed the arrival of a new UN humanitarian coordinator in the middle of 2015, Eugene Owusu, who replaced Toby Lanzer after his expulsion by the government.

One of the officials said the wariness to speak out was “policy” from Owusu's office, noting that internal pressure was required to drive any public statement. All three officials said public silence was not an effective strategy at gaining access to southern Unity, even though the need to preserve access was the justification for remaining silent.

“Access was often used as an excuse not to speak out on human rights violations, [but] we already didn't have access for most of 2015 so we didn't have that much to lose,” said the first official.

“There has to be a point at which we say, ‘you know what, now speaking out about what we're seeing and the massacres we're hearing about is more important than maintaining our relationship with the government’. It seemed like the UN never hit that point where they were comfortable making that shift, and NGOs fell in line.”

What’s next?

One possible measure to slow down the violence is an arms embargo.

The 2015 campaign, which lasted through the wet season, depended heavily on armoured and amphibious vehicles. Even today, fresh bullets continue to flow into southern Unity, including a reported transfer of ammunition from the SPLA to a militia in the area last month. But an embargo is unlikely to get past Russian and Chinese objections at the UN Security Council, even if it could garner enough regional support.

Another possible way to stop the attacks on civilians might be foreign military intervention. Already, UNMISS has a Chapter Seven mandate to protect civilians with lethal force when necessary and to facilitate humanitarian aid.

But UNMISS has weak command and control and a general unwillingness to engage. Although it established a base in Leer in November 2015, the town has only become more violent, militarised, and unsafe for aid workers and civilians alike.

Eight months ago, there was talk of sending an additional 4,000-strong UN Regional Protection Force drawn from neighbouring countries. But the RPF would only deploy to the capital Juba, and faced with government resistance, there has been no real progress on that or any other military option.

Political solutions are also in short supply.

“The international community has few options, and the state knows this,” said Carol Berger, a Canadian anthropologist who has worked in South Sudan for many years.

“The unimplemented peace agreement, talk of a national dialogue, of forming a hybrid court to try those alleged to have committed atrocities — all of these supposed solutions have only provided the state with a cover as it continues its war,” she told IRIN.

It's a grim outlook, but if the world continues sending food without stopping bullets, it's a likely scenario for years to come.

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TOP PHOTO: A young man with a gun wades through the swamps in rebel-held Leer County. CREDIT: Jason Patinkin