GANYIEL - Elizabeth Nyalat was a young student at a teacher-training college in Yei, a town southwest of South Sudan’s capital, Juba, who dreamt of contributing to the development of her country as an educator. But her dreams were shattered after conflict broke out in the world’s youngest nation in December 2013.
As word spread that the conflict had taken ethnic undertones, Nyalat feared for her life. She fled from Yei, trekking for months through forests and across swamplands to reach her home town of Ganyiel, hundreds of kilometres away in the southern part of Unity State.
The small town is relatively stable, and had been largely spared the direct impact of violence in the conflict due to its unique geography – it is naturally protected by the vast swamplands nearby known as the Sudd.
But the food security situation is grim. There is not much food for sale in the market, and the area’s swelling population has placed severe pressure on commercial food supplies.
“I came here and found a terrible situation…there was no food. Nothing,” 19-year-old Nyalat said as she queued to receive assistance in Ganyiel, including rations of sorghum, pulses and vegetable oil from the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).
WFP and its partners are providing food and nutrition assistance to more than 50,000 people in and around Ganyiel, including both the local community and tens of thousands of people who have sought shelter in and near the town after fleeing fighting in other parts of the country.
The food assistance is helping people survive, but life remains a real struggle in Ganyiel. The area is often flooded when the rains come, and has no social services. The schools have been closed since the conflict started, and there are no jobs.
Nyalat, who before the war had been looking forward to life as a teacher, has resorted to collecting and selling firewood in order to survive. Now married and the mother of a 4-month-old baby, feels her life would have been different if fighting had not thrown her country into turmoil.
“My life is not [as] good as it was when I was getting an education,” Nyalat said. “Even now, I came and got into marriage [only] because of this crisis of South Sudan.”
If the conflict carries on, it may do irreversible damage to the lives, hopes and dreams of Nyalat and millions like her.
WFP’s Executive Director, Ertharin Cousin, on a recent visit to raise awareness of the plight of civilians affected by conflict in the young nation, urged the international community not to forget the innocent victims who are not part of the conflict.
“We need the world to know that there are victims who are not part of this conflict who just want to have the ability to feed their children, to have the healthcare they need, to have the support that they require so that we don’t lose an entire generation while an unnecessary war goes on,” Cousin said.
“The challenge is the longer this conflict continues it is easy for the world to begin to think of them simply as a cost or as a statistic. But these are lives, these are people.”
WFP aims to assist over three million people in South Sudan this year. The agency’s work includes life-saving emergency assistance for the conflict-affected, nutrition support for mothers and children, food assistance for refugees, school meals, and asset-creation initiatives aimed at helping communities improve their food security and resilience.
But for the people affected by conflict in South Sudan the focus remains on the day-to-day struggle to survive, and that is unlikely to change as long as the fighting continues.
Nyalat hopes that the leadership of the parties involved in the conflict can reach peace agreement – which, she hopes, could enable her to return to school.
“What I want is for the two of them (Kiir and Machar) to talk in Addis and bring peace. It is the only thing I want for my education to continue,” Nyalat said. “I don’t want another thing but peace in this South Sudan.”