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South Sudan: WFP Food Distributions Go On Despite Huge Challenges

Hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese have been displaced by conflict since mid-December. Now, as each side accuses the other of violating an agreement to cease hostilities and political negotiations continue, most of the displaced are still too frightened to return home. Meanwhile, several WFP warehouses and offices have been looted and damaged, with the loss of thousands of tons of badly needed food. Despite this, WFP is assisting a growing number of people every day.

MALAKAL -- Mother-of-five Nawal Malakal bears the same surname as the city she calls home, but that city no longer bears much resemblance to the place she once knew.

The streets are largely emptied. Whole neighborhoods have been burned down, and homes in other parts of town broken into and looted. The town’s markets are largely destroyed, with the shops emptied of goods and many set ablaze.

Most of the people who remain in Malakal are sheltering in places they feel protected – the main hospital grounds, a handful of churches, and the base of the UNMISS peacekeeping mission, which is where Nawal and her children stay, wondering what has become of the rest of their family.

“I don’t know where my mother and brother are,” she says. “I have five children here. Their father may be dead.”

Nawal speaks as she and three of her neighbors are busy opening a sack of sorghum bearing the red-white-and-blue USAID logo, preparing to divide it equally between them. At this food distribution from WFP in partnership with World Vision, the women have also received yellow split peas and and vegetable oil. As they scoop the sorghum into smaller bags, Nawal and her neighbors say they feel that it is not safe to return home.

“Even if we wanted to go back now, our house is burnt,” says Nyandeng Chuol. “My sister was killed. I am here with her daughter and son.”

Even though she is safe for the moment, she worries that the shelters are in a low-lying area that will likely become a sea of mud in a few short months – and she is hoping for another solution.

“Let the UN take action soon, before the rain comes.”

It’s estimated that some 27,000 people have sought shelter at the UNMISS peacekeeping base in Malakal since the fighting broke out in mid-December. Ringed by coils of razor wire and watched over by peacekeepers, rows upon rows of makeshift shelters stretch along one edge of the base.

In a clear area set a short walk away from the shelters, the sacks of sorghum and split peas are stacked into piles just behind a WFP truck, which has brought them here directly from the airport. WFP has had to airlift this food to Malakal to provide for the people at the UNMISS base, because all the food stocks that WFP had stored in its two warehouses in the city has been looted.

‘Warehouse Wasteland’

The evidence of the looting is plainly visible across town, at the main WFP warehouse, where hundreds of empty oilcans are scattered on the ground, gleaming in the sun. The sorghum and pulses are all gone. The furniture and light fixtures have been taken from a small set of container offices, leaving years worth of stock reports and other files heaped on the floor. Even the sides of the canvas storage halls have been cut away in what appears to have been a massive, systematic looting spree.

“It’s like a warehouse wasteland,” said WFP Regional Director Valerie Guarnieri, looking dismayed as she saw the damage in person last week.

WFP’s office, which is in another neighborhood, has also been ransacked. The safe has been dragged into the hallway, shot with a gun, and pried open – though after such an intense effort to get inside, the thieves must have been disappointed to find no cash in the safe.

Some 1,700 metric tons of food – enough to feed 102,000 people for a month – was stolen from the two WFP warehouses in Malakal in repeated looting incidents over the course of the conflict.

‘You Have to Go On’

There are similar scenes in the towns of Bor and Bentiu, where WFP warehouses and offices have also been cleaned out.

“We’ve lost three major offices, each the size of a small country office,” said Tommy Thompson, WFP’s emergency director in Juba, noting that the loss of food stocks, offices, computers and other assets is seriously complicating WFP’s response. Extra security measures have been brought in to protect remaining food stocks.

But the agency is still managing food distributions in all three places, and staff are working overtime to get food assistance to conflict-affected parts of the country that have so far been difficult to reach.

“Yes, it’s depressing, but you have to go on,” said head of logistics Peter Schaller. “In three months, it will look different.”

Assisting More People Every Day

Despite the challenges, the WFP team had provided food assistance to around 220,000 people by the first week in February, and is reaching more people every day – including both those sheltering in UNMISS bases, and people who have fled to more remote, hard-to-access areas.

On 31 January, the first helicopter loaded with WFP high-energy biscuits touched down in the town of Wau Shilluk, across the river from Malakal in an area untouched by fighting, where tens of thousands of Malakal residents have fled seeking safety.

WFP would normally have been able to provide for the IDPs in Wau Shilluk using food stored in the Malakal warehouses, but with all of that food having been looted, the agency’s team is now working to urgently bring more food up from Juba. Transportation from the capital remains difficult because of continued insecurity, so in the meantime the biscuits were sent to provide ready-to-eat nutrition, particularly for the most vulnerable mothers and children.

WFP and partners have so far distributed food rations for IDPs in more than a dozen locations around the country. WFP is updating its emergency response plan, aiming to provide food assistance to some 1.3 million people over the next five months, a reflection of the degree to which the conflict has affected the country’s overall food security, especially in the states of Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile.