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Refugees continue to face starvation in civil war-torn South Sudan

Nyabutu Both collects beans that have fallen onto the road out of trucks carrying rations, carefully placing them into her shirt, in Juba, South Sudan, on April 14, 2018. (Mainichi)

JUBA, South Sudan -- While chaos continues from a long-running civil war, a Mainichi Shimbun reporter was granted access to a refugee camp in the United Nations-controlled area here in mid-April.

On the outskirts of the camp in the South Sudan capital of Juba, a young girl picks beans from the road that fell from bags on a rations truck. She is 8-year-old Nyabutu Both, and when asked if she came to the camp with her mother, she simply answered, "I came here alone," gripping the beans wrapped in her shirt that she collected. But will it be enough to fight her hunger? With an uneasy expression, she darts back into the bustle of the camp and disappears.

After over 20 years of civil war, South Sudan declared its independence from Sudan in 2011. However, the country was thrown into conflict once again in 2013, when the ruling government army of current President Salva Kiir Mayardit, who belongs to the country's majority ethnic group, the Dinka, faced off against opposition forces led by South Sudan's first vice president Riek Machar Teny Dhurgon, a member of the region's second largest ethnic group -- the Nuer.

Fearing attacks from the mainly Dinka government army, the Nuer requested protection in a facility roughly 7 kilometers southwest from the center of Juba managed mainly by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). U.N. peacekeeping forces stand guard with weapons at the gate of the area surrounded by high fences and barbed wire. Now, the camp's roughly 40,000 inhabitants are facing a lack of food inside and the threat of violence outside of the camp.

"I want to return home as soon as possible. But just continuing to live here is the best I can do," says 29-year-old resident Nyajal Paulino. People bustle about the bamboo and tarp shelters, washing clothes in muddy water in the streets soaked by rainfall. The temperature is 35 degrees Celsius and inside the windowless shelter, one is immediately covered in sweat. Paulino watches over 10 children as they divide up and eat the grain sorghum.

"There isn't enough to eat," she says, her expression clouding as she looks down at 6-month-old Nybol Tuor. "Because I can't produce any milk, all this child does is cry."

Nyajal Paulino, center right, makes sure the 10 children she looks after at a U.N. refugee camp eat at least twice a day with a shared spoon, in Juba, South Sudan, on April 17, 2018. (Mainichi)

Two years ago, Paulino's family house was attacked by government soldiers, and her mother, younger sister and older brother were fatally shot. She escaped to the neighboring country of Uganda, but as refugees flooding into the nation, there was nothing to eat, so she ended up in the U.N. camp back in South Sudan. Her husband went missing soon after. She makes bread from sorghum that she receives from the neighborhood and sells it in the camp to get everyday items like soap.

"I want to work outside of the camp, but if I venture out, I will either be raped or killed," she laments. "There's nothing I can do."

Although a ceasefire agreement was reached in December 2017, fighting has only worsened across the country, and one-third of South Sudan's population -- some 4.3 million people have been displaced, both internally (1.85 million) and abroad (2.45 million).

According to the U.N., the agriculture and infrastructure of the country has been completely destroyed during the civil war, and if sufficient aid is not delivered, there is a possibility that over 7 million people will be facing a severe famine within the next few months. On April 25, 10 U.N. personnel traveling in a car about 150 kilometers southwest from Juba were kidnapped by what is believed to be a group of armed insurgents, highlighting that even humanitarian aid personnel are not safe.

In January 2012, a Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (GDSF) engineering unit was dispatched on U.N. peacekeeping operations in Juba to repair infrastructure installations. In July 2016, an armed conflict occurred where the GDSF personnel were stationed in Juba, and it was discovered that members had written in their daily logs that combat had broken out. This called into question the conditions under which the GDSF could participate in peacekeeping operations, and they began withdrawing from South Sudan in April 2017, completely pulling out by the end of May that year.

Local U.N. staff member Ali Abubakar Ismnail, 43, who received training on the use of a generator from the GDSF unit, says, "The problem here is the lack of infrastructure, and the Japanese know-how was extremely useful and I learned a lot."

However, peace is still far away for the people of South Sudan. "Yesterday, too, a male acquaintance of mine was killed outside of the camp. It was probably the work of the government army," recounts 21-year-old Nyurbang Tut, who lives inside the UNMISS facility. "I wonder when the day will come when we can finally live peacefully."

(Japanese original by Tomofumi Inagaki, Tokyo Bureau)

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