A young South Sudanese girl waits at a UN Protection of Civilians camp in Malakal. The current crisis has displaced more than one million people across South Sudan. Photo by Michael Arunga.
The wide blue sky is thick with black vultures, hovering and circling above. The birds are the first sign something terrible has happened.
Driving through Upper Nile Province of South Sudan, we pass village after village that has been destroyed. The thatched huts that once housed entire families have been burnt to the ground, the few meagre possessions that didn’t burn have been looted. Any survivors have long since fled into the bush. The skeletons of those who didn’t line the roadside.
South Sudan is rapidly becoming a land where people starve and vultures feast.
And the once sleepy little town of Rom is the vulture’s waiting room.
As we drive into the town the black birds are everywhere. On the ground it is easy to see why the scavengers wait so expectantly.
Thousands of society’s most vulnerable – elderly, children, pregnant women, babies, toddlers, breastfeeding mothers – huddle together under the trees trying to find shelter from the rains or shade from the burning sun. They have only the clothes on their backs.
Since fighting began in this region of South Sudan back in December 2013, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced. Some 28,000 people have fled to Rom, which is currently still peaceful, to seek refuge. But there is no proper shelter to be had and there is no food. Sleeping outdoors they are at the mercy of the elements.
Women tell me their only food source is the leaves they gather from the trees. This is all that stands between them and starvation. There is a dirty small river nearby that is the only water supply. But many of these people are now too physically exhausted, scared or sick to even walk the kilometre through the bush to get there.
To reach Rom most people ran for two or three days. Dennis is in his early 20s. He’s one of the very few young or adult men that I meet here. Most men and boys over ten have either been killed or conscripted to fight into one of the different armed groups. Dennis tells me about the desperate journey.
“We ran without stopping the whole time, day and night. If you stopped you died. But after running so long your heart is pounding and your legs are lead. Can you imagine? Your mouth is so dry you cannot even breathe or swallow. But there is no water and you can’t stop. Can you imagine? Then we had to cross a river. If you couldn’t swim you drowned. Many children were screaming and drowning but you have to keep swimming for your own survival. Can you imagine? Now we are here and look at us. We are eating leaves but we are dying. We have nothing here. Can you imagine?”
Each time he asks me if I can imagine he grabs my arm and stares straight at me, his eyes burning with dark anger. He tells me he wants the world to know what is happening here.
But right now the world can’t even begin to imagine the horrors that are happening here in South Sudan.
World Vision is helping by providing emergency mosquito nets, plastic tarpaulin, warm blankets, foam mattresses, cooking utensils and plastic water containers.
The people of Rom have welcomed the homeless and have done all they can to support them, sharing what little supplies they have.
Kizi, a village leader, confides in me that little is about to become nothing. “It is the planting season, just before the rains come we plant. But because of the nearby fighting we do not have anything to plant with this year. Our stores are low and now there are this thousands more people here among us.”
Rom’s problems are being replicated in towns across the country. Aid agencies including World Vision warn that two thirds of the population are at risk of a food crisis, with a quarter of a million children at risk of serious malnutrition. UNICEF report 50,000 children under the age of 5 are already in critical condition and will die without urgent treatment.
Kizi continues: “Our local water supply was all we needed and was clean. Now with so many people using it, the river has become polluted. But what we can do? We have no choice but to help them. Today it is these people running here to our town, but tomorrow we may be the ones who have to run. This is our reality now in South Sudan.”
Perhaps the only thing it is not hard to imagine here are the vultures. All they have to do is wait.