Lina Obere wants to play. Nearly five years old, she pesters her brother, tugging his shirt and rolling on the ground near his feet. Then she turns to her mother, Cecilia, nuzzling and trying for attention. But she does not disturb her twin sister, Karleta.
Karleta is asleep under a faded pink shawl in a paediatric ward of a hospital far from their home in South Sudan. She is on the grimy floor of a refugee camp in northern Kenya, sick with anaemia and pneumonia brought on by severe malnutrition.
The twins were born soon after their country won its independence, and like the nation as a whole, they should be looking forward to celebrating reaching their first half-decade. Instead, they are struggling and desperate.
“Everything just became too difficult at home and no one was there to help us,” the girls’ mother says, one hand resting reassuringly on Karleta’s leg as she sleeps. “Everyone was hungry. People were dying. What could we do? We had to leave.”
South Sudan has spent much of its short life at war with itself, riven by a political conflict that turned to bloodshed late in 2013. Some 2.4 million people fled their homes in fear, before an August 2015 peace deal ended the major offensives.
Focused on fighting the opposition, the fledgling Government’s attention and funds were diverted from properly investing in national development.
This has left South Sudan on its knees five years after the joyous celebrations of July 9, 2011: independence day. Development indicators have barely moved. Infrastructure remains shambolic. Education, health and social services are rudimentary, and largely implemented by foreign charities or NGOs.
The war’s effects on areas that saw fighting are clear: emptied villages, unplanted fields, bombed schools or clinics. But the conflict’s ripple effect has even reached people living in places that escaped clashes.
The Oberes lived in such a place: the town of Isohe, in Eastern Equatoria province. Obere’s first husband was killed when bandits stole all the family’s livestock in a cattle raid. She found help at a church mission where she swept floors and tended the garden in return for food and a place for her family to sleep. For a while, she says, her life stabilized.
“I have never run away from home because of war or hunger before, nor did my parents, or any people I know.”
The twins were born late in 2011, followed by another son, Patricio, a year later. All around her, newly independent South Sudanese celebrated their first tastes of freedom and self-determination.
“It was okay then. The children grew well, there was work for me and the church helped us all,” Obere says. “We planted food, it rained, the crops came and we ate well – just normal life. The children loved especially peanuts that we grew and pounded to paste. They would eat so much then run around full of energy.”
But then the prices in the market started rising, driven by devaluations of the local currency and a global drop in the price of South Sudan’s sole crucial export: oil. The rains failed one year, and again the next.
More and more families like Obere’s started streaming into town from the failing farms, looking for help at the church mission. Soon, there were too many mouths and not enough food. Suddenly, the hopes of 2011 started to crack.
“I have never run away from home because of war or hunger before, nor did my parents, or any people I know,” says Obere, who is 26. “After realizing my children were suffering so bad, I heard people talking about Kakuma, that you go there and people help you.
“I realized that there was nobody to help me, nobody to give me a cow or a goat to sell, so I thought, I have to go.”
By the time she reached Kakuma refugee camp, in northern Kenya, Karleta was faring poorly. Doctors diagnosed severe acute malnutrition, a condition afflicting as much as 19 per cent of all South Sudanese refugee children arriving in Kakuma in May – six times above the World Health Organization’s emergency thresholds. A total of 103 of the 543 under-fives screened by medical staff that month were severely malnourished and 126 were moderately malnourished, according to figures from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
Now that the war is over, hunger is the main factor pushing South Sudanese families to flee, some north to Sudan and others south to Kenya. More than 125,000 arrived in neighbouring countries between January and April 2016, more than three-quarters of the total projected to flee this year.
UNHCR now estimates that by the end of 2016, more than 1 million South Sudanese will be refugees. At least 237,000 of them will have left their homeland during its fifth year, when the civil war is officially over.
But it is not all one-way traffic. Inside South Sudan, 2,000 internally displaced people each month are returning to the homes they fled when the conflict broke out in December 2013, convinced now that it is safe enough to start to rebuild their lives.
“The only thing that kept me alive was the thought of my family.”
Gatluak Ruei Kon, 56, was far from home, being treated in hospital for a chronic illness, when the war erupted. It was too dangerous for him to make the five-day journey back to his village – until recently. He was the first to sign up for help from UNHCR to make the move back to his family, near the town of Akobo, close to South Sudan’s border with Ethiopia.
“I felt like I was trapped in a nightmare,” Kon says of his time in a camp in Bor town for people made homeless by the war. “I had no friends to share my worries. The only thing that kept me alive was the thought of my family.”
Being home was “a dream that comes true,” he says, but there have been great changes in the time he was away. “Before the war, I used to have more than 100 cattle and a big farm,” he says. “We used to produce tons of maize and sorghum. That land is very dear to me; I thought about it so much when I was in Bor. It is all what I had to provide for my family. But because of the war, all the cows are gone.”
With the Government still struggling to fund and implement programmes to encourage its citizens to return home, international agencies are determined to help plug the gap. But appeals for the money they need to do so are also significantly underfunded.
Ann Encontre, UNHCR’s Regional Refugee Coordinator for the South Sudan Situation, says she is “extremely concerned that South Sudan is becoming a forgotten crisis.”
“With the regional refugee response plan funded at just 15 per cent, it is impossible to deliver even the most critical programmes to ensure food, clean water, education for children, health care and shelter for newly arrived refugees,” she says.
“We hope the international community will not fail to act and stand by the people of South Sudan, especially those who continue to flee their homes.”
“We hope the international community will not fail to act and stand by the people of South Sudan.”
Back in Kakuma, Cecilia Obere cradled Karleta and gently encouraged her to drink the special milk formula prescribed by doctors from the International Rescue Committee, which manages the hospital ward for severely malnourished children at the camp on behalf of UNHCR.
“I am ready to go home to South Sudan now, but only if there is peace, and if there is help in case the rain fails again and we have no food,” she says. “We need schools there, and clinics, and support in case of problems.”
“If you tell me that is there now, I will go. Until then, I have to stay here. I cannot return to a place where the children will suffer again.”
Rocco Nuri contributed