Famine, worsened by war, threatens South Sudanese, official says

IMAGE: CNS photo/Nancy McNally, Catholic Relief Services

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Some 5 million people in South
Sudan — half of its total population — are on the brink of starvation and a
quarter of a million children are already severely malnourished, a
representative from the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services said.

Famine has already gripped 100,000 people in Unity State
and other parts of the nation, and if emergency food and aid don’t get to
people soon, “people will start starving to death or they will die of
dehydration,” Jerry Farrell, country representative in South Sudan for
CRS, told Catholic News Service March 21.

Farrell and other representatives from dioceses, CRS,
Caritas and other Catholic aid and development agencies working in South Sudan
were in Rome for a meeting March 21-22 hosted by Caritas Internationalis to
discuss the worsening crisis in the country.

With so much fertile land in the country, the food
shortages and famine are man-made, Farrell said, a result of almost four years
of violence, displacement, climate change and economic collapse with the rate
of inflation nearing 800 percent.

The Catholic Church has always been in a unique position
to respond to humanitarian disasters no matter how bad the situation escalates,
Farrell said.

“The church never closes down. It’s extraordinary
and it’s part of the community,” he said.

Parishes and church-run schools, hospitals and other
institutions all open their doors to protect and care for people fleeing from
violence. Through a network of churches and religious orders, “within 24
hours we can provide assistance” to any newly displaced.

Even with the risk of increasing violence and insecurity,
the priests, nuns or church workers “might have to flee in the bush with
the people for a day or so. But they come back, celebrate Mass” and
immediately mobilize the national and international networks in place to send
out appeals and distribute the aid to the neediest or most vulnerable, he said.

“The church is a lifeline in South Sudan, not only
spiritually, but also physically. We can distribute medical supplies, food,
shelter, water, through the church in communities where you would think nobody
could go,” he said.

The church and its local partners also know exactly what
a community needs, so, for example, when violence struck Wau last year, CRS
found out the people there didn’t need food aid, but rather kitchen utensils —
portable stoves, pots and pans — because their homes had been looted.

To be able to respond adequately to such unpredictable
disasters, “you have to be able to talk to people with on-the-ground
knowledge, and the church has that in spades,” he said.

One area along the Nile River is so pristine and
abundant, “I can drop a line and pull out a catfish that weighs 50
pounds,” said Farrell, who insisted he was not a patient or practiced
fisherman. But the people can’t fish or eat if they don’t have security or

People will fish, plant and harvest as long as conflict
does not prevent their access to the areas and as long as they do not keep
losing land and equipment to arson and looting, he said.

The local churches — Catholic, Presbyterian and
Episcopalian communities — “have credibility and respect” with
almost all sides in the civil war, he said. Many church leaders can get feuding
groups to at least stop the fighting in their area and have the groups sit down
for talks.

“Because the basis of the conflict in South Sudan is
political, the solution is also political,” he said, “so the church
has a very important, critical role in bringing the parties together and does
this all the time at the grass-roots level in sponsoring neutral forums.”

“Everyone has to stop fighting. The people in South
Sudan are so tired, they are bone-weary of fighting and there is a hunger for
peace,” he said.

In the meantime, South Sudan desperately needs emergency
relief, long-term development programs, medical care, schooling and help for
people to “strengthen their dignity” by rebuilding their lives and
bringing peace.

“As a Catholic organization, we’re blessed because
we can actual work in all those areas at the same time,” he said.

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