International Rescue Committee (IRC)

South Sudan Crisis: Displaced and starving, families rely on water lilies to survive [Photo Essay]

Visit a South Sudan town devastated by conflict and hunger

  • A South Sudan soldier on patrol
  • South Sudan displaced survive in makeshift shelters
  • A makeshift camp on the outskirts of Ganyliel in South Sudan.
  • South Sudanese mother prepares a meager dinner.
  • Many South Sudan towns a inaccessible during the rainy season.
  • Lifesaving care for a South Sudan child suffering malnutrition
  • Lifesaving care of a malnourished girl in South Sudan
  • Displaced children from South Sudan at play
  • Clean water is scarce in South Sudan

Ethnic conflict in South Sudan has killed thousands and disrupted daily life, leaving nearly 7 million at risk of hunger and 3.7 million facing starvation, according to the UN. The IRC’s Peter Biro visited the town of Ganyliel in the north of the country where thousands of people have fled the fighting—and have been reduced to eating water lilies, roots and grass to survive.


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Nyanen Ruot was at home preparing a meal last December when without warning she heard the deafening sound of heavy machine gun fire. Looking out of her small thatched hut, she saw people screaming and tripping over each other in panic trying to flee the crossfire. 

“My neighbor was shot dead in front of my eyes,” she says.

Soldiers swept through the town of Bentiu, the capital of oil producing Unity State, setting huts on fire and forcing Ruot, 65, and her fellow surviving villagers to flee.

Since December, when a political rivalry between South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, and Riek Machar, a former vice president, erupted into violence, thousands of people have been killed and 1 million have been forced to flee their homes.

The fighting put an end to three years of peace and a shaky stability following South Sudan’s declaration of independence from Sudan. Now South Sudan is facing a humanitarian catastrophe and an upsurge of violence between the country’s largest two ethnic groups, the Dinka, and the Nuer.

Nyanen Ruot and her five adult children are now sheltering with some 300 other Nuer families on an arid plain near the town of Ganyliel in the far north of the country. It took 10 days by foot and boat to reach the town, which is surrounded by swamps and rivers. Ruot was separated from her husband during the chaos of their flight and she has not been able to find him.

The civil conflict couldn’t have come at a worse time. The last two years have seen devastating flooding across South Sudan. Crops have been washed away in the torrents, leaving nothing to harvest. As a result, the United Nations warns that nearly 7 million people are at risk of hunger while 3.7 million are at risk of imminent starvation.

In Ganyliel, an influx of people fleeing the fighting “has made the food shortages unbearable,” says Peter Kuarbang, the town’s administrator.

People here normally harvest rich crops of sorghum, corn and beans but are now reduced to depending on infrequent food deliveries flown in by U.N. helicopters.

“It is not enough,” says Nyanen Ruot. “People are surviving on water lilies that we fetch from the river.” 

John Kwenda, who oversees an IRC-run health center in Ganyliel, says he is seeing a worrying increase in acute malnourishment. 

“Over 40 percent of children under age 5 that we are screening are severely or moderately malnourished,” he says.

In one if the wards, a shockingly emaciated 4-year-old girl lies on a gurney while her mother feeds her peanut paste and water.

“She only weighs 8 pounds,” Kwenda says. “We suspect she also suffers from tuberculosis. Her weight has doubled since she was admitted in December but improvement is slow.”    

Before the recent conflict, the IRC —which in addition to running the health clinic provides water and other services to the displaced people here—transported patients with life-threatening conditions from the health center to a hospital three hours away by speed boat. But the hospital was recently destroyed in the fighting.

“Now if you become seriously ill, you will likely die,” Kwenda says.

Meanwhile, as rumors that fighting might spread to Ganyliel have started to circulate, no traders have come to the town in months, says Adhe Boru Holmberg, who is in charge of IRC programs in Ganyliel.

“The roads and rivers leading to Ganyliel are simply too dangerous for them,” he says.

When the rainy season begins in a few weeks, Ganyliel’s landing strip and roads will turn to mud, leaving the area all but cut off from the rest of the country.

“We are trying to get supplies in before that window closes,” Holmberg says. “It’s a race against time.”

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