A personal reflection from Andrew Horton, who visited South Sudan in March 2017.
She stopped and looked away from the translator – she didn’t want to tell him how hunger was destroying her life. She wanted to tell me.
I like to think I’m a pretty hardened interviewer. But when a woman who has barely anything to eat looks you in the eye and shows you how little flesh she has on her arms, it’s difficult not to be taken aback.
There was no longer a language barrier. I had to pause the interview and gather myself. Mary wanted my attention, and I know why.
A bitter crisis
Millions of people in South Sudan are caught up in a humanitarian crisis, instigated by a bitter conflict which began on 15 December 2013.
Five years later the numbers tell a tragic story:
• More than 6 million people are struggling to find enough food.
• 1.91 million people have fled their homes to live in other parts of the country.
• More than 2 million people have fled to neighbouring countries, and Uganda has over 1 million South Sudanese refugees.
• 383,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the conflict and a huge number of women subjected to rape.
• South Sudan remains the most dangerous place in the world for aid workers, with 113 having been killed during the conflict.
When I visited the country in March 2017, famine had been declared in some counties just a few weeks earlier. It was a privilege to be reporting on the crisis for Tearfund’s East Africa Appeal.
I asked the Tearfund team in Panyagor what they would like supporters in the UK to pray for the most. I was expecting them to say ‘food’, but the answer was unanimously ‘peace’. Peace has to come first. Peace means farmers can farm, livelihoods can be restored and people can hope again.
In September 2018 two of the country’s rival leaders, President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar, agreed and shook hands on what they called a ‘final, final’ peace agreement.
But violent clashes have continued. Now the dry season is starting, cattle raiding is at its peak, with violent attacks increasing. Last month more than 150 women and girls in the northern area of Bentiu came forward to seek help after they were raped or suffered other forms of sexual violence. This shows the brutal reality that remains for many in South Sudan.
Peace has to come first. Peace means farmers can farm, livelihoods can be restored and people can hope again.
While the hope is that lasting peace will come, expectations are low for many people in South Sudan, because of the number of failed peace agreements and the ongoing violence. And yet for people like Mary, we will continue to be there – to help build peace and to pray continually.
A prayer for South Sudan
You have told us how good peace is:
‘How good and pleasant it is
when God’s people live together in unity!’
We pray for this unity – this peace – to come to South Sudan.
For five long years conflict has reigned.
But we ask for your peace –
for people to feel safe, for the hungry to be fed,
for weapons of war to be replaced with tools for transforming lives.
Lord, hear our plea to you today.
In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
(All images: Tom Price/Tearfund)