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Hunger Stalks S. Sudan; Desperate Turn to Leaves

Hunger Stalks S. Sudan; Desperate Turn to Leaves
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Residents of Lankien, an isolated community in South Sudan, gather for a communal meal. See related video by VOA's Gabe Joselow.

When they’ve exhausted all other options for food, people here strip leaves from the trees. Boiling the leaves in a bit of water gives them just enough calories to survive.

More than 2.5 million people face food insecurity in war-torn South Sudan, humanitarian agencies warn. Poor harvests, violence and constraints on trade have pushed this area into what those agencies have classified as a level-three food crisis – two steps below famine.

Understanding its dimensions requires knowing how ordinary South Sudanese are coping.

Local resident Nyabiel Machar says she and her family are running out of supplies and have no income for food.

"There is no employment here and no money," she says. There is very little support, so they survive on what they can get from the forest: wild fruits and leaves.

Isolation feeds into crisis

Lankien is in the heartland of the opposition, where mostly ethnic Nuer rebel soldiers have taken up arms against the government of President Salva Kiir.

Because the area is surrounded by government forces, the town is becoming increasingly isolated. Only the road to Ethiopia remains open. With few goods getting through, prices are rising, pressuring traders and consumers.

The local humanitarian coordinator for the county, Wuor Biel Pam, has watched the town strain under the pressure of closing trade routes and an influx of displaced people.

Before the crisis, "the market was so big, [with] a lot of food, a lot of commodities. But nowadays, there is not enough food," he says. "… You can see many people are moving around, densely populated in this area, and the food is not enough."

Spending limited

Without trade and movement to other areas, there is little money to go around.

A cattle auction in the center of town brings few buyers. The animals, priced at more than $120 a head, are not selling the way they used to, says trader Tut Majak.

Before, some people drew salaries as teachers, soldiers and administrators. But the change of authority ended government jobs, reducing the amount of money circulating locally. Now, he says, spending has stopped and people cannot afford to buy anything.

Aid running low

United Nations air drops and the distribution of basic dry foods have helped stave off a much worse crisis. But the deliveries are not always on schedule, and stocks from the last drop are running low.

Humanitarian groups are considering ways to better support the population during the coming rainy season, according to food security officer for Oxfam International, a poverty-fighting confederation of organizations.

"If not for direct food distribution or whatever support we are giving, then it would [require] other interventions like cash, maybe giving to traders to make sure they buy a lot of these goods during dry season," Alberto Maker says, "and during the wet season there will still be a lot of goods in the market for people to access."

Rains are not expected until May, which means as food supplies dry up and conflict blocks access and movement, people here are going to have to dig deep and keep doing whatever it takes to survive.

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