It's the newest country in the world, but South Sudan also bears the title of being one of -- if not the -- worst places in the world to be a child. Three years of war have not only killed or maimed countless children, but have forced millions from their homes, disrupted their education, and starved them of badly needed food and basic health care.
Right now, there are 4.3 million children in urgent need of humanitarian assistance across South Sudan. Last month's formal declaration of famine only officialized a catastrophe that has been unfolding for months.
Unidentified people have breakfast in front of their huts in displaced persons camp, Juba, South Sudan, Feb. 28, 2012. (Photo: Vlad Karavaev via Getty Images)
The numbers are staggering. The suffering is unparalleled.
When a colleague first shared his story about Helen and Emmanuel, a mother and baby he had met from South Sudan, I was filled with hope. The family had made the four-day trek from South Sudan to Uganda to seek safety in a refugee camp. But Emmanuel was growing frailer by the day. With little food in the camp, Helen decided to return to South Sudan, where she might at least have the support of her community.
On arrival, she found her village abandoned and her husband gone. Soon, Emmanuel fell unconscious. Helen borrowed money to urgently take him to Juba, where he was checked into a malnutrition treatment centre. It should have been a turning point.
Unfortunately, it was too late. We received an email updating us on the situation soon after: Emmanuel had passed away.
Not even one year old, Emmanuel's life was cut short because of a war he couldn't even understand.
A village near Juba, South Sudan. (Photo: DMFoss via Getty Images)
The silver lining was that dedicated humanitarian workers were desperately trying to treat and track Emmanuel's progress, and updating those around the world who were rooting for him. He was suffering, but he wasn't forgotten about.
There are more than one million children across South Sudan who are estimated to be acutely malnourished, with more than 275,000 just like Emmanuel, severely malnourished and in need of immediate aid.
The numbers are staggering, but we can't afford to be paralyzed with inaction.
And it's not just a question of lack of food. It's a question of people being uprooted from their homes due to violence, and an economic crisis that has seen people lose their livelihoods and coping mechanisms stretched beyond the breaking point.
There needs to be a political solution to the conflict. Until then, there needs to be unimpeded access granted to all humanitarian organizations working to reach those hardest to reach. And there needs to be a boost in resources to meet the needs of the millions of children at risk, just like Emmanuel, before it's too late.
Yes, the numbers are staggering, but we can't afford to be paralyzed with inaction. The cost to children's lives is too high, and the threat to the future of the country and the region too great.
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“I left Malakal because of the fighting, we were chased from there - they wanted to kill us. We walked here and the children were really suffering because we had nothing to eat on the way. Now we’re here, there still nothing to eat but leaves and my daughter is sick and malnourished. "Since the conflict started, life has become very difficult and we’re suffering every day. I would like to go home to Malakal where our lives were easier if there is peace, but I don't know what can stop this fighting. "It is good that South Sudan got its independence and we have our freedom, but it has not put an end to these wars. That is what I need for my children to have a better life, is an end to conflict.”
“It is good that we separated ourselves from Sudan because back when we were one country, we didn't have freedom. Now we are happy that we're with our own people, looking after our own affairs. "I wouldn't say I'm disappointed by the conflict which has broken out now, because I believe everything is in God's hands. But our lives were already hard, and this war has made everything more difficult. "I walked for ten days with my three children and mother to get here to Akobo, after the fighting broke out in Malakal and my husband got sick and died. My two daughters used to go to school, but now they have to go out to the forest with me to get leaves and berries for us to eat, or firewood for us to sell. [The leaves} are not enough and they’re getting sick from eating them all the time. "I hope there will be peace so that our situation can improve and we can go back to our home. But you know, there is always war here in South Sudan."
“This war has affected children in many ways. Some children have lost their parents; all of the houses have been burnt down and all of the food in the stocks has been looted or burnt. "During Independence, I thought we would be very happy because we had our freedom. When we were getting Independence and I gave birth to Nyabol I had hope. I said to myself when I gave birth ‘I won’t have to carry this child and flee the way we had to flee. This child will stay without any problems and when it grows big it will go to school’. "What I felt at the time of the war? I felt like it was taking us to zero level, we had to start again. Now I’m praying to God for peace Then our brothers who have run to other countries like Kenya and Uganda will be able to come back and build our country again, because at the moment it is completely destroyed. "My message to the world is South Sudan is one country and these are the same people who are killing themselves. They’re the ones that are looking for power. I hope the world can help bring peace and reconciliation to South Sudan so all of the South Sudanese people can be reconciled.”
“I was 16 years old when I got married. I did not go to school because there was no education when I was young. "My three eldest children now go to school. Their education has been interrupted because sometimes we don’t have the money to pay the school fees, and also because of insecurity. "We are always scared because when South Sudan got independence, it did not become a peaceful country. The armed groups stopped that – they were abducting children and killing people and now the fighting has started again so we don’t enjoy a peaceful country. "I hope South Sudan will be peaceful in the future with no fighting. I don’t feel good now because people are killing each other, they are killing themselves since they are the same people from the same country. We’re still running like we have been for 21 years.”
"My youngest son was one week old when the conflict started. I carried him wrapped tightly in a towel. I felt that if I would fall down I would drop him because we were running. "My husband left us here in the UNMISS camp and went to fight. [In April], attackers came around all sides of the camp. With the first shot they fired my child [William] was shot. I thought he was dead so I put him down and picked up my other child and ran. "William was found by an organisation who took him to Juba. After three or four days they brought a photo of him. I had lost hope he was alive, but when I saw the photo and I was shocked and happy to realise he was still alive. "I’d tell people outside of South Sudan – we’re dying here, there is a lot of sickness. We are scared of how long we will be here [in the camp]. All of us will die here. "We feel the children are not getting everything they need. William has problems – he does not eat. I want the international community to stop the war so we can live in peace and everyone can help themselves. "
“I grew up here in Akobo until I was 16, when I went to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya to get an education and to escape the conflict. There was a lot of bombing in this area, even our church was bombed in 1999 and 2001. "When South Sudan became independent, I was really happy. I feel proud to be South Sudanese. We are black in colour and our culture is strong, and so is our faith. Under Sudan we were forced to be something we are not, but now we are independent everyone in the country should be free to choose their religion, culture, whatever they want. "For my son’s future, I really want him to study. But this conflict has made it difficult for him to begin his education. In truth, I’m very disappointed by the conflict. I feel like if this war goes on, my son won’t have the life I want him to.”
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