PIBOR TOWN – When Bobok Ngalim heard that attackers were coming to her village, she was terrified. The last time this happened, in 2011, her husband was killed in fighting between the Lou Nuer and Murle communities.
Now a single parent with three children, she decided to take no chances.
“I fled to the bush with my children. I was not the only one. All the women – old and young – escaped into the bushes. Many women are separated from their husbands. They don’t know if (the men) are alive,” she said, speaking through a translator.
“We have been staying (in the bush) for weeks. We have nothing to eat. Our children cannot drink milk because there are no cattle to draw milk from. We have been surviving on grass like this,” she said, pointing to the ground as she stood in the shade of a tree outside a WFP distribution centre in the town of Pibor.
Ngalim, who wore a black cloth patterned with vivid red flowers knotted over one shoulder, held up a green fruit, known locally as lalop. This fruit is often eaten when ripe, but in times of need, desperate people will pick the unripe fruit and boil it, and this can lead to diarrhoea.
“When we get so hungry, we harvest this wild fruit and we boil it,” Ngalim said. “It does not taste good but what can we do?”
Ngalim’s story offers a glimpse of the hardship endured in the scrub-dotted swamplands and bush by the often unseen victims of Jonglei’s perennial instability.
“Many of the women and children have stomach problems. Everybody is suffering. Women and children are suffering from diarrhoea. Maybe it is caused by what we are eating, I don’t know. What I know is that we are hungry and we are living in the open.”
Ngalim, who said she did not know her age, had to walk for two days to get to the distribution centre. She left her two sons and daughter in the care of her blind mother in the bush.
“My heart is with my children.… I hope they are all right, and I am consoled that I can take this food to them,” she said. “They (WFP) are giving us bags of sorghum, oil, beans, salt and packets of food which they say will make our children strong.”
Clashes between government forces and insurgents allied to General David Yau Yau and renewed violence between the Lou Nuer and Murle communities have sent thousands of Jonglei’s residents fleeing into the bush. After years of instability, no one wants to risk being caught in the crossfire, or targeted by any of the warring factions.
WFP launched an emergency response operation on 23 July to provide urgently needed food to these displaced, and so far, nearly 30,000 people have received relief in areas that the humanitarian community has gained access to in Pibor County, with distributions in Dorein, Labrab and Pibor Town. WFP hopes to reach up to 60,000 people from now until December.
Reaching the thousands of vulnerable families is a particular challenge in a region where many roads have been rendered impassable by the rainy season and by the ongoing, ever-shifting conflict. WFP is concerned that thousands of people will require assistance until the end of the year as they have already missed the planting season.
Like many others in this state, Ngalim’s life has been taken over by the struggle to stay ahead of the armed groups.
“Since the fighting started at the end of last year between the government army and the Yau Yau people, we have been running in and out of our villages,” she said. She last left her home in July, when some displaced people warned her that Lou Nuer youths were marching towards Murle areas.
Despite the precariousness of her situation, Ngalim was grateful to be able to return to her children with life-giving supplies.
“We are taking the food to our children and although it is a long walk to the bush, we are happy that our children will stop crying from hunger.”
Story by George Fominyen, WFP South Sudan.