South Sudan village overwhelmed by thousands fleeing war

The Times
Pathai, South Sudan

A crowd gathers to be registered for emergency food rations and immunisations in Pathai (Tristan McConnell)
A crowd gathers to be registered for emergency food rations and immunisations in Pathai (Tristan McConnell)

The village of Pathai in Jonglei State is no more than a few tin-roofed cinderblock buildings among thatched mud huts, a metal shipping container used as a prison and a jumble of broken-down vehicles. It is, however, home to thousands upon thousands of people who have arrived looking for help.

They began streaming in last week, walking for days across swamps and plains in the hope of food and medical care delivered by a small team of aid workers from the United Nations World Food Programme. The settlement has neither roads nor an airstrip, leaving it isolated from the rest of the country.

South Sudan went back to war in December — less than three years after independence from the north — and this remote rebel-held expanse in the country’s east, has been effectively cut off since then, providing a haven from government forces but little else.

Government salaries and supplies have been stopped so schools and medical clinics have shut down. Roads and rivers were severed by battle frontlines, bringing trade to a halt. Local administrators say that 14,000 people have fled the towns of Bor and Malakal to the relative safety of Pathai, increasing the local population by a half.

Nyakuoth Banyuot, 25, clutched the youngest of her four children, a 13-month-old baby boy, to her chest. She escaped Bor on the eastern bank of the Nile when fighting erupted there in December. Ms Banyuot is an ethnic Nuer — the same tribe as former vice-president turned rebel leader Riek Machar. His enemy is President Salva Kiir, a Dinka. Here in Pathai she is surrounded by Nuer.

“I left Bor with nothing. Only my children and the clothes I am wearing,” Ms Banyuot said. “We have nothing. No food, no water, not even a blanket.”

In March, she walked for a fortnight to reach the safety of her relatives’ village. On Friday she walked again, for three hours, to reach a plastic table set beneath the spreading branches of a shady tree in Pathai, where whole families were registered for rations from the World Food Programme.

Next to them UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) workers immunised children against polio and measles, checked them for malnutrition and took the details of those who were separated from their families in the fighting.

A widely predicted famine has been narrowly averted so far by airdrops of food across parts of the country affected by the conflict, but a poor harvest is expected and aid agencies warn the threat has receded, not vanished.

When the first aid workers for months arrived recently in Pathai, thousands clamoured for help. On one day alone 2,700 people were registered for emergency food, more than 600 children were vaccinated, and four cases of malnutrition were identified.