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. I’ve waded out into water that’s too deep for an SUV and too shallow for a speedboat.
I board a canoe made from a hollowed-out palm tree.
“This river is very protective to the people of Ganyliel,” 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 him 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
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. During her 10-day trip here, she ate only wild fruit and water lilies. 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 impossibly thin ankles.
In Ganyliel, more than 30 percent of children younger than 5 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.
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’s like not only losing all of your possessions but also having your 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’ll remain in the swamps, hungry but safe, until a peace comes that she can believe in. She’s heard horror stories about another danger: what happens to women captured by the opposing ethnic militias.
Gregory Warner is NPR’s East Africa correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter @radiogrego.