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Lives on the wire

THE coils of razor wire twist and snake everywhere around the perimeter of the base.

Gatchang, two, and his sister, Nyaruach, seven in a therapeutic centre. Right: women queue for aid to be given out in one of the UN protected zones. All Photographs: David Pratt
Gatchang, two, and his sister, Nyaruach, seven in a therapeutic centre. Right: women queue for aid to be given out in one of the UN protected zones. All Photographs: David Pratt

There is always something menacing about such wire. Think of prison or concentration camps, no man's land or military installations, and you will get the idea. Almost always, razor wire or barbed wire tells of exclusion, incarceration or separation. So often it is testimony to lives forcibly demarcated, people penned in or kept at bay.

Across South Sudan, much the same tale is told by the wire that surrounds those United Nations bases that serve as sanctuary for the hundreds of thousands fleeing the latest violence that has gripped the world's youngest nation.

Whatever their ethnicity, be it Nuer, Dinka or any other of South Sudan's tribal groups, all those who have sought refuge inside this ring of wire and watchtowers fear what could happen should they leave and try to return home while the fighting outside rages. War itself, though, is not the only threat these people face.

"Life here is only good because there is no killing. Now we are only dying of hunger," was how one frail elderly man I met cynically summed up his plight and that of others holed up inside the UN base of Tomping in the capital city, Juba.

As we talked about the looting and bloodletting that had forced him to seek safety here, a long stream of women queued the length of the razor-wire fence waiting patiently in the stifling South Sudan heat for a distribution of what aid workers call "non-food items" that included plastic buckets and soap.

As in all these makeshift camps for displaced civilians, there is a constant battle against the insanitary conditions that bring disease and diarrhoea that ravage the weakest. Every so often the stench of ammonia from urine and faeces drifts across the camp from pit latrines dug into the dry red African earth by JCB earthmovers brought in for the task.

Sheltering under tarpaulins from the searing sun, barefoot bedraggled children, many showing the swollen-belly symptoms of kwashiorkor protein malnourishment, sit listlessly in the dirt.

There is a prevailing sense of claustrophobia in these places, the Protection of Civilian Camps (POCS), as they are called in the rather sterile parlance of UN officialdom

Tens of thousands of desperate, hungry and traumatised people cram cheek-by-jowl into whatever shelter they can find. Some are in tiny flimsy pop-up tents, others live under plastic sheets and even inside large cardboard boxes.

Hardly surprising then, that such conditions have taken a terrible toll on the young and infirm.

At one base I came across two children, a brother and sister, both exhausted and asleep on a bed inside a therapeutic centre run by the humanitarian agency Concern Worldwide. The little boy, Gatchang, is only two years old. His sister, Nyaruach, is a little older at seven, but is confronted with the terrifying responsibility of being the sole carer for her little brother.

With their father missing somewhere outside the safety of the camp wire and their mother lying just a few yards away on another bed, too weak to move through fever and hunger, the children have been brought into the centre as a safeguard.

In camps like these, this is as good as it gets in terms of safety nets for the survival of such children.

Without this kind of help both youngsters would doubtless themselves rapidly succumb to the hunger, malaria, parasitic worms and respiratory infections that stalk people's lives here.

As it is their mother, Nyabuor, is very ill. As I enter the cubicle where she lies I am immediately struck by how gaunt and emaciated she looks. It is as if her whole being exudes a kind of weariness. The fever that had gripped her has lingered persistently for a long time and struck long before the fighting that engulfed her neighbourhood in Juba.

"The fighters had machine guns and there was much shooting. My husband was wounded in the hand and our entire house destroyed," Nyabuor recalled.

I reassure her that her children are safe and well next door and she manages a weak smile before saying that her fever is better but now what she needs is food.

"Yesterday all I had was some juice, nothing more," she says, just seconds before the curtain to the cubicle draws back and a little girl appears.

The girl, no more than 10 years old, hands Nyabuor a black plastic bag containing a few scraps of dried fish. "She is a neighbour's daughter whose family have also fled here and she comes whenever possible with a little food that they have left over," my guide and interpreter explains.

For now these handouts are all Nyabuor and her children can depend upon until she is able and strong enough to leave her sick bed and help fend for her family.

Discreetly, one member of staff at the therapeutic centre tells me that day is some way off yet for this young mother who looks far older that her 25 years.

For countless South Sudanese like Nyabuor, politics is an abstract and distant thing. Even before the conflict that erupted on December 15 over a dispute between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar, most people across this baking hot, dry, unforgiving land struggled to get by. Over the years during previous visits I have made to South Sudan, I have always been struck by the harshness of the landscape.

This is a region where the heat is so great it has partially cooked eggs, a place where termites will devour clothes left on the ground, and scorpions will lurk in your shoes. It's not uncommon to see vultures waddle on the dusty earth, unafraid of people, as if hoping for a repeat of a previous bonanza in years gone by when famine left hundreds of thousands to die.

At varying times droughts, floods and locusts destroy crops and rinderpest kills cattle. In the dry season meningitis flourishes. It is endemic. When the rains come the meningitis stops, but swarms of mosquitoes carry the annual plague of malaria.

In all, the people here have to resist an environment seemingly hell-bent on their destruction, as well as the disruption, trauma and killing of the current conflict. For humanitarian agencies such as Concern Worldwide whose work I was to see first hand, South Sudan is logistically one of the most difficult places on earth in which to operate.

It is bigger than Britain, and has no roads, electricity or infrastructure outside the capital Juba and a few isolated towns. Elsewhere it is a land of endless bush, villages, nomadic cattle herdsmen and subsistence farmers.

Right now it is estimated that the ranks of displaced people from the current fighting have swelled to nearly 900,000, close to a tenth of South Sudan's entire population. The United Nations has said it estimates 3.7 million people are now in acute need of food across the country.

According to the UN's humanitarian co-ordinator in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, £790m is now required to deal with the crisis.

"Nobody in mid-December could have foreseen the scale of the emergency that now faces us. We are doing everything we can to avoid a catastrophe," says Lanzer, who pointed out too the profound effects the current conflict has had on the country's economy.

"Largely because markets have been disrupted, people have been living under extreme duress. People aren't able to move as they normally would," he said.

Concern Worldwide staff I spoke to also reiterated the worries of many humanitarian workers that millions could go hungry if fields remain unploughed before the coming rainy season in a few months.

"Once these rains come the scarcity of paved roads and airstrips will make it extremely difficult to move supplies to affected communities, much less for hundreds of thousands of people to return home," said Paula Connelly, who handles much of the logistics for Concern from its headquarters in Juba.

So far, however, many of those South Sudanese who have been displaced have shown few signs of a willingness to return to their communities where many shops have been looted and homes burned to the ground during the months of conflict.

"Every day we hear of relatives who have returned only to be killed in the fighting," confirmed one woman I spoke to, summing up the fears of many.

One elderly man I talked to was even convinced he would never see his home neighbourhood again, and he would be forced to live out his remaining days stranded in the camp where he now survives sleeping beneath a plastic sheet with crushed cardboard boxes as bedding.

For now this daily battle for survival and helping those displaced cope is all that matters for most South Sudanese and the humanitarian agencies like Concern tasked with assisting them.

Back at the agency's therapeutic centre at Juba House 3 camp I came across 18-month-old Nyakuma and her mother Nyaruach, herself still in her teens.

Nyaruach tells me she knows for certain that her husband is alive and in another nearby camp. So volatile and dangerous is the situation outside the wire, however, that for now any hope of the family being reunited remains a distant prospect.

Nyaruach has enough to contend with, though, as her baby daughter struggles with an undiagnosed condition that has given her a high fever and loss of appetite. According to one of Concern's nutrition workers, malaria is suspected, but only a full test will confirm if tiny Nyakuma has the mosquito-borne disease that kills so many people across Africa.

At the therapeutic centre a small sample of blood is taken from Nyakuma's finger and introduced into the compact malaria testing kit in a process that only takes a few minutes.

"If one line appears it is negative, if two show then it is positive," one of Concern's local team explains as we watch the plastic dial in the hope that Nyakuma has been spared being stricken with the disease.

Within minutes the results show malaria is not the culprit and the other diagnostic tests begin to establish what is causing her ­sickness. A few days later, when we return to the centre, Nyakuma is looking much better, her condition having been the result of acute dehydration and malnourishment.

Hooked up to a rehydration drip, she is now eating Plumpy'nut the peanut-based ready-to-use therapeutic food that has proved worldwide to be a life saver.

"Once a child begins eating Plumpy'nut it is always a good sign," says a Concern Nutritionist at the centre, adding that for now the battle to help Nyakuma is going their way, but there is still an uphill struggle before the little girl and countless others like her are fully out of danger.

Across South Sudan, Concern Worldwide is working to help such children, screening for malnutrition and malaria, distributing food and water and helping those able to resettle to return to their communities. Like most humanitarian agencies here they have their work cut out and need all the help they can get.

When I first visited this country 12 years ago, war ravaged the land and South Sudan was a big, bad, ugly place as it struggled for independence from the Republic of Sudan's northern rulers in Khartoum. A few years ago on July 9, 2011 that independence was realised and the world's newest nation was full of optimism.

Travelling through the streets of the capital, Juba a few days ago I couldn't help notice a large advertising billboard for a new beer brewed in South Sudan.

"Two years of independence, the taste of progress," said the slogan on the poster.

Yes, this nation may now be fully independent, but progress and improvement in the lives of most of its people remains an elusive thing.

A new nation it may be but the old horrors South Sudan has experienced before still linger and continue to haunt it. The humanitarian needs of the ordinary, innocent people of this country are as great as ever. Many lives hang in the balance and they depend on our support.

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Families

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