'When you're dealing with children, it's always going to hit home': Margaret Evans on South Sudan

CBC foreign correspondent Margaret Evans talks about the difficulty of reporting on the devastating famine and civil war in South Sudan, where the UN estimates roughly five million people are at risk of hunger.

CBC correspondent gives her perspective on the famine and fighting in South Sudan

Margaret Evans on South Sudan

4 years ago
CBC correspondent Margaret Evans talks to Mark Kelley about reporting on the famine and the fighting 3:45

CBC foreign correspondent Margaret Evans has returned to London after visiting South Sudan, a country in the throes of civil and ethnic warfare where the UN estimates roughly five million people are at risk of hunger. In the capital, Juba, she witnessed children dying of malnutrition in the state children's hospital. And in the UN camps, she met some of the thousands of people displaced from their homes by hunger or who fled in fear of soldiers.

Evans spoke about her work in South Sudan with the CBC's Mark Kelley on this week's The Investigators

You've been to Africa. You've reported on famine. You've reported on tragedy before. But on a personal level, how did this one hit you?

Well, it was worse than we expected. And, of course, when you're dealing with children, it's always going to hit home a lot deeper. And as it turned out, in the end, some of the children we were meeting, it was really their last moments on this planet. And so, of course, that's going to impact you.

You're very conscious of needing to deal with their memory correctly and trying not to make those final moments for them worse. So, yes, difficult.

Bak, 4, had trouble breathing and was in great discomfort due to severe malnutrition and tuberculosis. His mother, Asunta, said she had no money to pay for proper treatments. CBC News learned Bak died just days after this photo was taken at the children's hospital in Juba. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

As you look around you and you see that you're surrounded by this tragedy — in that moment, what do you feel is your responsibility?

Well, I think the responsibility in the first instance is just to get there. You can't make people care if you don't go there. You can't make people understand on a much deeper level if you're just rewriting somebody else's wire copy.

South Sudan is a difficult country for journalists to operate in. They're not particularly welcome. It's getting harder and harder to get visas there. Even aid agencies are having trouble operating there. So getting there is half the battle.

And when you do, it's not difficult [to tell the story]. It's very easy for me to say to you, I stood before a man who had his dying child in his arms and the arms of that father were so skinny it looked like he couldn't even hold up that child. The minute I say that to you, I hope it travels across the miles. And the picture, as they say, speaks louder than words.

Moses feeds his son, Daniel, who had all the symptoms of severe malnutrition, including swelling and scarring of body tissue. The little boy died overnight. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

You're just there, doing your job, and reporting the facts to the Canadian public. What do you hope the reaction will be, both from the Canadian government and from the Canadian people?

Obviously as journalists our job is to help people understand and make up their own mind about how best to help a situation, whether or not to get involved. So you hope that you can kind of clear away the weeds, make people understand what the war is about, why it's still happening, what international players are doing on the stage to actually stop the war.

When we hear "famine," we tend to think about drought. You know, in sort of the Biblical way. This, of course, is a man-made famine. This is a country that is Africa's newest nation — it's just about to be six years old. It didn't last more than three years before it descended into civil war. And that is what is driving the famine, on top of the difficult climatic conditions, on top of the distance and the lack of development in the country and the lack of good governance.

So, by presenting that picture, hopefully you give people the tools they need to impact their MPs or government if that's what they want to do.

Watch The Investigators Saturdays at 9:30 pm ET and Sundays at 5:30 pm ET on CBC News Network.