South Sudan: We must not look away

12 April, 2014
2014, Nyal, South Sudan: The crisis in South Sudan has displaced more than 1 million people and now threatens to descend into severe hunger. Credit: OCHA
2014, Nyal, South Sudan: The crisis in South Sudan has displaced more than 1 million people and now threatens to descend into severe hunger. Credit: OCHA

Toby Lanzer is the United Nations’ top humanitarian official in South Sudan. Since conflict broke out in December 2013 he has travelled across the country to meet people struck by violence and coordinate the response to their needs. Here he shares some impressions from these travels.

Scenes that linger.

December 2013. Shots ring out in the capital Juba. On the UN shortwave radio, staff manning the gate at one of the main UN bases say that people are arriving, in their hundreds. We let them in. Within two days, tens of thousands of people are sheltering inside UN bases, as violence spreads around the country.

January 2014. Overcrowded barges keep arriving in Mingkaman, full of people fleeing for their lives. They are coming from Jonglei, across the river. It is expensive to get a seat on the barge; many have been left behind. Others drowned during the crossing. Those who have made it are huddled under the trees dotting the dry fields next to the river, seeking shade during the day and shelter during the night.

The women I speak with tell me the same thing: they want a safe place for their children; they need food, water and shelter. I promise them that we will come back, and that they will receive help.

February 2014. I pause for a moment at the entrance of what used to be the main hospital in Malakal, South Sudan’s second largest town. Now it’s a deserted shell. Bits of paper, dirty mattresses and clothes are strewn on the ground. Vultures circle overhead. A dog wanders restlessly around the debris.

Once inside, I see bodies lying on the floor – patients killed when the town was ransacked. Someone has covered their faces with blankets. When I come back three weeks later, the bodies are still there. Only bones remain. Malakal is deserted once again; no one remains to bury the dead.

March, 2014. Children with big eyes and thin legs watch us closely as our rickety canoe glides towards them. We are approaching their temporary home: a tiny island in the flood plains of southern Unity State – right in the middle of the country. The children and their families fled their homes when violence broke out at the end of 2013. Rapidly shifting frontlines have forced them to keep running.

This island represents a last shred of hope and of safety; the wetlands make it hard for armed men to reach them. What is gained in safety is lost in food and shelter. A middle-aged woman, Marta, shows me what she feeds her family: roots of water lilies, wild leaves. Children sleep in the open. The rains are coming. People are exhausted. Two weeks later, I get the news that aid agencies are in the area, taking food and fishing gear for the hungry, medicine for the sick and care for the malnourished.

April 2014. At a press conference in Geneva, I do my best to explain the magnitude of the crisis. Seven million people at risk of hunger. One million people forced from their homes. Thousands of children separated from their families. We are reaching many, but need more money and staff to do more.

Today [12 April] representatives from countries around the world are meeting in Washington D.C. to discuss what needs to be done in South Sudan. One thing is certain: we have promised to stay and deliver. Let us see that promise through. 

For more updates on the humanitarian situation in South Sudan, follow Toby Lanzer on Twitter: @tobylanzer or visit 

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