One mother’s struggle for survival in South Sudan

By Oxfam
How to feed her six children has been a constant worry for Martha Nyandit since fighting in South Sudan forced the family to flee their home. Even though she is nursing, Nyandit herself sometimes has only one meal a day. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

Months of fighting in South Sudan have robbed Martha Nyandit’s six children of a father, a home, and any semblance of security. They are among more than one million people displaced by the conflict.

Along the reedy banks of the Nile River in South Sudan’s Awerial County, where the temperature can soar to 113 degrees and a wind-whipped dust fills the air, a sprawling settlement has sprung up. Living beneath the sparse trees in whatever patches of shade they can find are families who have sold much of what they own for the price of a crossing to safety to Mingkaman.  They have fled the violence that has consumed the town of Bor and surrounding communities since mid-December—part of a wave of fighting that has displaced more than one million people and triggered a humanitarian crisis. More than 3.5 million people are now in urgent need of assistance.

Among those who have abandoned their homes is Martha Nyandit—a tall, angular woman—and her six children. Together, they made their way to the small village of Ahou north of Mingkaman where they now live with barely the basics for survival: two meals a day—sometimes just one for Nyandit; a single sleeping mat and mosquito net shared among them; and shade from the lalop tree whose leaves do little to keep the rain off.

“When there’s no food I ask for a loan or I beg from my neighbors who have fewer children and so might have some of their ration left over,” said Nyandit as she breastfed her baby boy, Alier. “Sometimes I feel so weak I worry I will not have enough milk for the baby. Sometimes I’m so weak I feel like I’m going to collapse. I can’t see when I stand up.”

For three weeks Nyandit’s family has camped here. Soon after their arrival, they received an emergency supply of food, but it didn’t last long. The salt and oil were gone first, leaving Nyandit just grains and beans to boil in water while she waited for a food distribution to carry the family through the next month.

Fighting hunger

At a food distribution, Martha received a share of grain, oil, and beans. Oxfam is working with the World Food Programme on the monthly distributions. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

The needs in South Sudan are enormous, and meeting them is going to require a major aid effort. Oxfam, working with the UN’s World Food Programme, is distributing food to 95,000 people a month in the area around Mingkaman. The distributions, intended to last a six-person family for a month, will run until September. Families receive two 110-pound bags of sorghum, 23 pounds of lentils, and just under two gallons  of oil each month.

Still, hunger has been a constant for many families in the months since the conflict first broke out.  When gunshots shattered the night in Bor, Nyandit had only enough time to gather a few essentials before fleeing with her children. She managed to pack a few clothes, about $70 in cash, and 22 pounds of sorghum.

Along the winding tributaries of the Nile, the family first found refuge with hundreds of other people on a small island—a place called Magok. Though Nyandit had the small stash of sorghum to help feed her family, neither she nor anyone else on the island had a means of grinding the grain. Instead, she had to boil it whole.

“For the adults and older children, this was OK,” she said. “But the small children couldn’t eat it. They complained it was tough and hard.”

Others in hiding shared some of what they had with Nyandit’s children, but eventually all their supplies ran out.

“On the island, there was no food, no market, nothing to eat,” she said.

Bullets—and a narrow escape

Desperate for food, some of the islanders began travelling back to the mainland in dug-out canoes to search for things to feed their families—even as the sound of artillery fire filled the air. But one morning, armed soldiers found the canoes banked on the mainland, stole them, and paddled back to the island where Nyandit, her children, and so many others were hiding.

“The armed men came ashore and started shooting, so we quickly ran down into the reeds where they couldn’t see us,” said Nyandit. “They didn’t know exactly where we were, so they sprayed bullets into the reeds.”

One of the bullets grazed the skin on the ankle of Nyandit’s 11-year-old son, Kuol. Other people were shot dead. With no place left to hide but the river, Nyandit and her children waded in.

“I knew I had to get us down into the water for us to be safe,” she said. “The water came up to my chest. I had one child on my back, the baby around my neck and one floating on my arm. The others were able to go on their own.”

For that entire day, Nyandit’s family and several others hid in the water and on the shore, trying to make as little noise as possible so the soldiers would not discover them. But keeping young children quiet was an almost impossible challenge.

“Kur (4) kept asking me where his older siblings had gone. He kept screaming ‘Where’s my brother? Where’s my brother gone?’,” recalled Nyandit. “I needed to keep him quiet so I lay on top of him on the shore. He had mud all over his face, but it stopped the sound of him crying. I told him he must stop asking questions because we need to survive.”

Finally, when darkness fell, relatives in Mingkaman who had received a call about the island invasion, sent a barge to rescue the families.

Now a widow

The threat of waterborne diseases rises when people are displaced and have to depend on uncertain sources of drinking water, like this one that Martha Nyandit has been using. Oxfam is helping displaced South Sudanese families by treating water drawn from the Nile, building latrines, and distributing soap. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

In Mingkaman, Nyandit and her children arrived with nothing: In their escape from the island they had lost the cash and clothes they brought from their home in Bor. But that wasn’t the worst of it. Nyandit finally learned the fate of her husband—a soldier in the South Sudanese government army who had been pulled into the fighting.

Nyandit had been asking about him since January, but no one had given her a straight answer—until she got to Mingkaman and a cousin brought her the terrible news: he had been killed in the fighting in Bor.

“I feel like it was recent, even though he has been dead for three months,” said Nyandit. “I used to wake up needing to get on with my day, needing to get on with things but I felt so weary. I couldn’t get things done. I needed to know where he was.”

Camped among other single mothers, Martha Nyandit and her children have no plastic sheeting with which to build a shelter. When it rains, she sends some of her children to take shelter with the neighbors. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

The family’s home in Bor—built by her husband and consisting of two thatched huts and a smaller shelter used as a kitchen—is gone now, too.

With no home to go back to and no plastic sheeting with which to build a shelter in Ahou, Nyandit eyes each passing cloud with worry as the rainy season descends.

“When it does rain, I divide my children up between the shelters of the neighbors,” she said. “The elder three go together and the younger ones stay with me. But my neighbors don’t have room for them to sleep lying down so they have to sit up and wait for the rain to stop.”

For Nyandit, so much loss has left her unanchored.

“Now, home (Bor) and this place (Ahou) is all the same to me,” she said. “But life here is better because I can get the general food distribution.”

Editor’s Note: The day after Oxfam’s Grace Cahill visited with Nyandit and her children to report on this story, the family and rest of the community received their monthly food distribution.

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