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"People are suffering everywhere": Millions now at risk of famine and disease

South Sudan, May 27, 2014

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  • Mary Nyakoak fled her home to escape fighting and now stays in a grass hut in Ganyiel. She's one of tens of thousands of people displaced to this swampy area, where Mercy Corps is helping families cope with food shortages. Photos from Ganyiel: Jacob Zocherman for Mercy Corps

Last week, Mercy Corps joined 300 leaders from South Sudan, donor governments, regional, national and international non-governmental organizations In Oslo, Norway to address the dire humanitarian crisis in South Sudan.

A ceasefire signed on May 9 quickly fell apart and fighting has continued between the government and opposition forces. The U.N. warns that a famine could overtake the country — and half of its 12 million citizens will be displaced, starving or dead by year’s end — if the conflict does not end.

The conference raised more than $600 million USD in pledges for new emergency relief funding — funding that must “translate into items such as food, shelter materials and vaccines in days not months,” as we and nine colleague NGOs outlined in a joint statement including Mercy Corps' recommendations about what must be done to help the four million people in desperate need of assistance.

Mercy Corps is delivering clean water and building latrines for the 25,000 sheltering at the U.N. base in Bentiu. It’s critical to maintain sanitation in the muddy, swamp-like conditions to prevent an outbreak of cholera, which has already infected over 80 people in the capital city of Juba.

We’re also distributing food, tools and seeds to plant fast-growing crops in Ganyiel to help families cope with severe food shortages.

Calling from Juba, our Country Director Mathieu Rouquette described the massive tragedy unfolding in the country:

“The situation is very grave. Almost six months of conflict has forced 1.3 million people from their homes. People who have fled to the U.N. bases receive assistance, but tensions are rising in the crowded spaces.

In other areas, continued fighting and logistical challenges make it extremely hard for us to reach people in need with food and water. We are in the middle of nowhere — there are no markets, there are no roads.

In those remote areas where we work, like Ganyiel, people have been displaced twice, even three times, since the start of the conflict. They don’t trust they will be safe anymore. They’d rather be in the bush or far from urban centers.

Severe malnutrition is rising quickly. People are eating water lilies and grass and roots — whatever they can find — because they don’t have access to anything else. If the situation stays the same — or worsens — and people can’t plant, famine is an eventuality. People will die in the bush without anyone knowing.

A lot of people have been living in the bush for many years and have already experienced a lot of fighting. Some of them have only known war in their lifetime. They’re incredibly resilient. They’re incredibly strong. But they are terrified now. They have lost everything again — lost hope — and they are very afraid for their children, for their families. They are absolutely traumatized.

All areas are affected by the conflict, one way or another. There may not be active shelling or fighting, but with already chronic malnutrition, routes to markets cut off, young men recruited to join the fighting, and the fact that humanitarian organizations can’t reach some areas, people are suffering everywhere. It’s disrupting the socio-economic fabric of the country.”

READ MORE: 9 signs of humanitarian catastrophe in South Sudan we can't ignore

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