LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Aid agencies have begun airlifting food by helicopter to tens of thousands of people displaced by escalating violence in the east of South Sudan, where many have spent weeks hiding in the bush.
Fighting between the army, rebels and rival tribes has uprooted an estimated 100,000 people in the east of Jonglei state. Insecurity combined with heavy rains which have waterlogged roads are making it impossible for aid workers to reach most of the displaced. Some children are eating weeds to survive.
“We believe these people need food now and cannot wait for much longer after hiding in the bush for weeks,” said Chris Nikoi, South Sudan country director for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).
“We are sparing no effort to provide lifesaving assistance, but we need more food supplies in the country and more helicopters to take this food to those who most need it.”
The WFP, which is sharing two helicopters with other aid agencies, has launched a $20 million appeal for three extra helicopters and over 3,600 tonnes of food to help 60,000 people for the rest of the year.
Local politician David Yau Yau is leading a rebellion in Jonglei, and new clashes have broken out between rival Lou Nuer and Murle tribes. Western powers are worried the violence could escalate into civil war in South Sudan, which seceded from Sudan in 2011.
Last week aid agencies managed to reach civilians in the Dorein and Labdab areas in Pibor County for the first time since March, when the latest violence erupted.
“What I saw immediately was a lot of women and children looking really tired and really hungry,” said WFP spokesman George Fominyen, speaking from Pibor County.
“One of the women I was talking to said she had gone nearly four months without a proper meal. She had three children and they were basically surviving on weeds and wild fruits.”
Fominyen said aid agencies had only been able to reach about 30,000 displaced people, but the WFP estimates that about 60,000 are in desperate need of food.
“We believe that they have already missed the planting season, and being uprooted from their homes means their livelihoods have been disrupted and they need urgent assistance,” he added.
Fominyen said people he saw around Dorein were living in makeshift shelters cobbled together from straw and sticks.
“This was in an area that the humanitarian community has been able to access so I can only imagine what the situation is for the people living in the bushes,” he added.
Even before the upsurge in violence, Pibor County was suffering serious food insecurity.
Murle communities are now resorting to extreme coping strategies, according to the U.N. news service IRIN. Families have started to eat female cattle which means they cannot replenish their stocks and will lose a source of milk.
Women who have been hiding in the bush with their children have walked into towns to collect food, but they told IRIN they would return to the swamps, even though they have no shelter or clean water, as they feared the security forces more than hunger.
Fominyen said two Mi-8 helicopters had been allocated to the whole humanitarian community, which meant they could only deliver a fraction of the food needed.
The WFP wants two more Mi-8s and a heavy duty Mi-26 which can be used purely for airlifting food – mainly cereals, lentils and vegetable oil. This would free up the other helicopters to deliver medical supplies, plastic sheeting, water purification tablets and other non-food items.
The Mi-8s used now can each deliver two tonnes of food per sortie, while an Mi-26 can deliver 12 tonnes, Fominyen said.
The problems in mounting a humanitarian operation in Pibor have been compounded by attacks on aid agencies by rebels and soldiers.
Armed men raided WFP warehouses in the towns of Boma and Likuangole in May, taking 500 tonnes of food – enough to feed 10,000 people for three months. Medical supplies have been stolen from other aid agencies.
The United States, South Sudan's biggest ally, said this month that Juba was not doing enough to protect civilians and urged the army to stop attacking U.N. staff and looting aid supplies.