'The country has become an enemy to itself': Winnipeggers step up to help famine-gripped South Sudan

Winnipeggers are stepping forward to help address the ongoing famine and humanitarian crisis in South Sudan.

South Sudan's civil war forces civilians into camps, exacerbating hunger crisis

A father feeds his starving young son in Juba, South Sudan. A Winnipeg woman has organized a fundraiser to try to help people in the country, which is ravaged by both famine and civil war. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Winnipeggers are stepping up to help address the ongoing famine and humanitarian crisis in South Sudan.

Rebecca Deng has organized a fundraiser this weekend at Winnipeg's South Sudanese Community Centre to try and send more aid to the country, and she knows its challenges well — she's a former refugee from South Sudan herself.

Deng, who fled her home in South Sudan in the 1980s and came to settle in Winnipeg in 2005, calls the country's current violence random and terrifying.

"You don't know who is killing who," said Deng. "There is fighting, the country has become an enemy to itself."

Tens of thousands have been displaced in the northeastern African nation, with many living in protection camps guarded by soldiers.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization estimates roughly five million people in South Sudan are at risk because of a lack of food security.

Civilians have already been forced to eat weeds in order to survive after violence forced farmers away from their fields and drove citizens from their homes.

Violence is also preventing the South Sudanese from foraging for wild fruits and bush meat — sustenance people sometimes turn to during lean periods between harvests, said Deng.

Boys haul water in the cramped protection of civilians camp in Wau, South Sudan. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Last July, she travelled to South Sudan to set up a women's centre in the city of Bor with the aim of empowering women and girls in the area.

But instead of providing literacy training and spreading awareness about early childhood development, the centre has been forced to shift gears — providing more essential aid, like food, to women.

"They come there and eat and go home after that," said Deng.

She said because her group is comprised of locals, they are able to get aid into areas of the country that can be difficult for outside organizations to access.

"As we all heard in the news there is a blockage of humanitarian aid," she said. "The only thing for us is a limit of resources."

'The level of need is so dire'

Winnipeg's Jim Cornelius, executive director of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, said his group is working with the World Food Program to help deliver life-saving sustenance to about 40,000 people in South Sudan's Unity state.

Cornelius said he is deeply troubled by the crisis in South Sudan.

"We need to really increase the level of support there … The level of need is so dire," he said.

One of the foods Cornelius's organization distributes is especially designed for the seriously malnourished.

Called plumpy'nut, the pudding-like therapeutic food packed with energy and nutrients in a form that is easily digestible, he said.
Rebecca Deng is a 'Lost Girl' from South Sudan. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

The packages can mean the difference between life and death for children and malnourished mothers.

For Deng, it's difficult to imagine a future where South Sudanese have secure food unless the civil war ends.

She is hoping to facilitate grassroots reconciliation through her women's centre.

"What would actually help the people of South Sudan is the peace," she said. "Food and peace go together."