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Escaping South Sudan's Violence Means Tolerating Hunger

Women carry sticks in Ganyeil, South Sudan, an area protected from the violence in the country due to its isolation. But food there is scarce.
Gregory Warner NPR
Women carry sticks in Ganyeil, South Sudan, an area protected from the violence in the country due to its isolation. But food there is scarce.

A shallow floodplain fed by the Nile River helps keep Ganyiel, South Sudan isolated from attackers. But it also make sit difficult to bring aid in for those that are displaced and starving.
Gregory Warner NPR
A shallow floodplain fed by the Nile River helps keep Ganyiel, South Sudan isolated from attackers. But it also make sit difficult to bring aid in for those that are displaced and starving.

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Escaping South Sudan's Violence Means Tolerating Hunger

Even in an undeveloped country like South Sudan, Ganyliel can feel like the middle of nowhere; a bunch of tiny islands surrounded by a gigantic swampy floodplain fed by the River Nile during rainy season. To get here I took a helicopter from the capital, then ditched my sneakers for gumboots, and waded out into water is too deep for an SUV and too shallow for a speedboat. I board a canoe made of a hollowed-out palm tree.

"This river is very protective to the people of Ganliel," says my companion in the canoe, Lorjack Riak Lorjack. He fled to these swamps when fighting erupted in his hometown of Bentiu. He fears government soldiers and other armed groups who he says are systematically killing off people of his ethnic group, the Nuer.

He laughs to think of them following them here in a canoe of their own. "The whole army can't get into the boat," he says. "Attackers can shoot them." As if on cue, a young man floats past us in his own canoe with an AK 47 on his lap. The swampy terrain is a military equalizer: it means that a few vigilantes can protect tens of thousands of people. But there's a price.

Isolation Equals Hunger

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In a malnutrition clinic, five women sit in the shade of a tree, listless children on their laps. Nya Buol, who doesn't know her age but looks in her mid-20s, has twin daughters. One cries jealously as the other sucks.

Nya Buol admits that her milk has dried up for either child. During her 10-day trip here, she ate only wild fruit and water lillies. Now she has nothing aside from occasional airlifts of food from the United Nations. Buol says her children are 2 years old, but they're the size of infants, with impossible thin ankles.

In Ganyliel, more than 30 percent of children under five are malnourished. The IRC clinic here has treated 1,800 cases so far.

Starving Near A River Of Fish

People who have nets can fish, but there's little to barter the fish for, since the bush traders that normally would have trekked into these swamps to sell flour and salt and bags of tea have been driven off by fighting.

Nya Buol says she can't go back to Bentiu because it's still unsafe. She also has little to return to; militias torched her house and stole her cattle, which in South Sudan are used like large currency. It would be as if she'd not only lost all her possessions she'd also had her bank accounts wiped clean.

Toby Lanzer, the humanitarian coordinator for the U.N., has come here to Ganyliel to assess the situation. "Markets have collapsed," he says. "So even if you might have something to trade or a bit of money, there's nothing to buy. Because the traders have gone."

The reason that Lanzer and the United Nations aren't crying famine just yet is because in South Sudan at this time of year, scarcity is normal. We're in what's euphemistically called the "lean months." But if people don't leave their hiding places, farmers don't plant and traders don't travel, the lean months could become lean years.The 3 million to 4 million people now estimated at risk of famine could rise to 7 million, which is about 70 percent of the country.

Nya Buol, the mother of the twins, says she won't go back to Bentiu. She has little to return to; militias torched her house and stole her cattle. She's also heard horror stories about what happens to women captured by the opposing ethnic militias. She says she'll remain in the swamps, hungry but safe, until a peace comes that she can believe in.

Gregory Warner is NPR's East Africa Correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter @radiogrego.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/

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