South Sudan: Food and healthcare urgently needed to save thousands of lives in Leer County

7 Jul 2014

June 2014, Unity State, South Sudan: A woman carries relief supplies from a distribution site in Leer County, Unity State. Leer is hosting over 40,000 internally displaced people mainly from neighbouring Jonglei State. Credit: OCHA/ Guillaume Schneiter
Tens of thousands of people have arrived in Leer, a town in South Sudan’s Unity State. They need food, healthcare and medical support.

On a hot afternoon in Leer town, Unity State, thousands of people are waiting in a vast field. Suddenly, a plane appears on the horizon. As food rations drop from the sky, excitement spreads among the crowd. Local volunteers and aid workers do their best to keep order making sure the distribution of food for 400 families goes as planned.

Nicolas, 30 years old, observes the scene. “My brother and I came to Leer a couple of weeks ago to escape violence,” he says. “We are from Akobo, Jonglei State, and we have traveled many days to get here.

“We have been hiding in the bush, eating green leaves, lilies, sleeping on the ground. Now we are here and safe but we have nothing to eat. We badly need this assistance.”

Hundreds of thousands of people on the move

Since conflict broke out in South Sudan six months ago, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children have set off across the country in search of safety and help. While some have found a modicum of safety in Leer, they are not out of danger. Hunger and disease threaten the lives of thousands of people there, including about 40,000 internally displaced people. Many of the displaced people have crossed frontlines, with their associated risks, in search of food.

Having arrived in Leer, most of the displaced have scattered within host communities. These communities were already in a perilous state. Most of the people from Leer town and surrounding villages have only recently returned to their homes, having themselves been displaced by violence.

The humanitarian response is scaling up

Since early June, the aid operation in Leer County has been steadily building. Aid agencies are distributing food and essential household items. The World Food Programme is conducting regular airlifts to deliver food and household supplies.

Other organizations are also at work in Leer. “After ten days, we are now completing the distribution of plastic sheets, blankets, mosquito nets, kitchen sets and soap for around 6,700 families,” says Taka Makahara, an aid worker with the Italian NGO Intersos.

“A lot of people have traveled from Bentiu, Unity State, and Malakal, Upper Nile State, in the past two months and the number of displaced people has significantly increased. But we are doing our best to satisfy them.”

“Life is difficult for all of us here”

Maria Koko, an energetic young woman who was displaced from Bentiu, works as a volunteer for the International Organization for Migration. She helps distribute relief items to displaced families. Before the crisis, she worked as an accountant for the United Nations Development Programme in Bentiu.

She had to flee her home suddenly and joined up with relatives in Leer. “I have been here for the last two months,” she says. “But before coming to Leer, I spent two months in the bush, without any assistance. I’m really happy I can now work as a humanitarian.

“But life is difficult for all of us here. Most of the displaced people sleep in the schools and the church. Host communities do what they can to assist but even for them it is difficult as many found their homes destroyed when they came back to Leer.”

Long-term food and medical needs

Hunger and malnutrition are critical issues in Leer County. Because of the crisis, the planting season started later than usual and people will only have a harvest in September.

“The harvest will likely last only until the end of the year,” explains Sebastien Daridan, an aid worker in Leer who works for the Norwegian Refugee Council. “After that, people will again be left with nothing until the next rainy season in June 2015.

“If food distributions don’t continue on a regular basis until next year, the situation will be critical.”

Many children are already severely malnourished.

According to health partners working in the area, over 2,000 children under five are being treated for severe acute malnutrition. A targeted supplementary feeding programme partnership agreement is in place with airlifts of ready-to-use therapeutic food planned.

But many locationsare hard-to-reach from Leer town, making it difficult for people to seek help. “We need mobile clinics to reach people in remote areas” says Maria Koko “In many villages, people are so sick and weak they don’t have the strength to walk all the way to Leer town. It is really sad but some people and children die just because of the distance.”