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Helena lives in Wau town, Western Bahr El Ghazal State, South Sudan. She’s not been to her village since last year, when she was forced to leave in the midst of violence. Although she left with some of her family, others sought shelter in the bush with no means of communication, so Helena hasn’t seen or spoken to them since.
This is not the first time this has happened. “I built the house I lived in with my own hands and now, for the second time, I have been forced to leave it,” she says. “The first time was in 2012, when there was conflict and we ran to Wau, where we stayed with my relatives for four months.”
"We left quickly and carried nothing"
Decades-old tensions between local famers in Wau and pastoralists from neighboring areas in search of grazing land ignited in late 2012. Many civilians from both communities were killed and thousands displaced. The conflict that engulfed South Sudan in 2013 further polarized communities, leading to more clashes and loss of life.
“The first time this happened, we were warned about the fighting. We had time to prepare ourselves and carry what we needed. They did not burn our homes,” says Helena. “This time, there was no warning. We left quickly and carried nothing. No money, food or clothes. Our homes were looted and burnt, and the crops we were ready to harvest destroyed. Last time we had a home to go back to, this time we have nothing.”
Asunta, a mother of two and IDP from Ndisa, South Sudan, stand outside her new home.
Helena is one of at least 38,000 South Sudanese who, according to Human Rights Watch, have been displaced by fighting in Wau town and surrounding villages. Many of those forced from their homes are farmers who relied heavily on their land for income and from whom the people of Wau relied for food. In Western Bahr el Ghazal alone, at least 45 percent of the population are now unsure where their next meal will come from, an indication of just how detrimental an effect the conflict has had in the area.
“I came here with my children. We had nowhere to sleep, no money – we left everything behind when we ran,” says Asunta, a mother of four who fled from Ndisa, a farming village about 30 kilometers from Wau. “When we can find mangoes, we peel the skin, boil it, mix it in flour, and then eat. If not, we look for leaves and grass. Everyday, the cost of goods goes up. Everyday, there is one more thing we can’t afford.”
"The last time I saw my land, it was burnt down"
Augustino is a father of 12 who has farmed since he can remember, growing cassava, sorghum, potatoes and other crops. In times of peace, his harvest was enough to feed his family and take his children to school. Although his first home was in the village, he decided to build a house in Wau for his children to stay in while attending school in Wau town. Those were the good days. In 2015, he was forced to leave his farm because of violence. Left with no choice, he came to Wau town to keep his family safe.
But he is no longer self-sufficient. He struggles to find food for his family and his children no longer go to school. “Living in Wau is difficult, you need money for everything. At least I know how to survive in the village - I can find food in the forest or bush to feed my family. Now I don’t have a farm and cannot support anyone with anything. The last time I saw my land was November 12th 2015, burnt down.”
Augustino used to be a self-sufficient farmer but he now struggles to find enough food to eat after his land was burned to the ground in 2015.
“In our communities, none of us are soldiers. All we want to do is cultivate our land, like we have been doing for years. Whoever is responsible for this war needs to stop so that we can return to that. War should be between soldiers, but they’re not killing soldiers, or rebels, they are killing us, farmers. It needs to stop.”
Helena, Asunta and Augustino are some of the thousands displaced from farming communities supported by Oxfam with tools, seeds and complementary training on efficient farming methods. But the recent fighting means these communities can no longer access their land and some of those registered for assistance cannot be traced. Oxfam is re-establishing the project in new locations but the fact remains - two planting seasons have now been lost.
An urgent need for more support
The journey to recovery will be long and arduous. While many have faced a tough year, some still hold on to the hope that things will change for the better in the coming months. Many want to go back home to rebuild what was lost.
The ability of the people of South Sudan to recover will remain tenuous until they can fully resume and rebuild their livelihoods. To do this, parties to the August 2015 peace agreement must respect the ceasefire, protect civilians, create an enabling environment for and facilitate the safe passage of humanitarian aid, and ensure the freedom and safety of those accessing it. Humanitarian assistance has helped avert catastrophic conditions, but there’s an urgent need for more support, and safe access for aid actors to reach people in the worst conflict affected areas.
Photos: Stella Madete/Oxfam