As the humanitarian crisis worsens in South Sudan, Bishop Erkolano Lodu Tombe, President of Caritas South Sudan and Bishop of Yei, has warned the country is in a state of collapse with millions of people facing mass starvation.
Bishop Tombe and senior officials from Caritas South Sudan gathered in Rome on Tuesday to discuss the operational challenges and to scale up the global Catholic aid network’s urgent response in the country where famine has been declared in the midst of civil war.
“South Sudan is collapsing and the poor and the unarmed are suffering,” said Bishop Tombe. “Without support for emergency relief it will get worse, people are dying.”
Currently 1 million people are in imminent danger of famine in South Sudan and in total 5.1 million are in urgent need of food and livelihood assistance. At least 270,000 children are suffering acute malnutrition.
“There is food scarcity and a lack of medication,” Bishop Tombe said. “We need food to save people from starvation as well as medicine and education for the few kids wherever they are so they can get to school.”
Bishop Tombe says there are now 1.8 million internally displaced persons in South Sudan and 1.5 million refugees and the United Nations estimates 5.8 million people will need humanitarian assistance to fight starvation in South Sudan in 2017 .
Caritas is calling for international action to stop the ongoing violence in the country and ensure there are stable conditions to allow critical aid to be delivered.
“Civilians are attacked wherever they are – in their homes and when they go out in search of food,” said Bishop Tombe. “When they want to go and harvest their crops they can be considered rebels or sympathisers and eliminated. Civilians are dying and people are disappearing.”
One of the worst-hit areas is the bishop’s own diocese of Yei, in the country’s south-west close to the border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“The roads are all blocked so there is no way for the people to leave and no way for people to come in and rescue them,” Bishop Tombe said. “There are over 100,000 people trapped in Yei. The only way to reach them is by air and with no support they will die of hunger.”
Through its network Caritas operates across all seven dioceses in South Sudan with access to remote rural areas. Leaders of Caritas South Sudan want to raise awareness about the dire nature of the crisis and gain more international support.
“We want to make the Caritas family aware of the starvation in South Sudan and to raise the necessary funds to relieve the starving people there, otherwise people will starve,” said Bishop Tombe. “We cannot do it by ourselves.”
Bishop Tombe said: “The voice of the Holy Father is very clear: Don’t leave South Sudan alone. It is not about talking, it is about doing something, that is what Pope Francis said.”
On his visit to Rome the bishop, together with Executive Director of Caritas South Sudan, Gabriel Yai, outlined the extremely urgent situation to sister Catholic agencies involved in the direct distribution of aid in the field.
“Caritas has a good network of Church leaders, priests and community leaders to deliver food to these communities,” says Gabriel Yai. “We can do more on the ground.
“Nearly 5 million people are food insecure and the worst affected are mothers and young children as well as the elderly,” Yai said. “We want the Caritas members on the ground and those who are not based in Juba to bring our efforts together and try to rescue the hungry people in South Sudan. ”
Father John Opi Severino Oduavi from the diocese of Torit called for an end to the fighting and said a ceasefire was essential so that Caritas and church leaders could help people overcome food scarcity.
“Everybody in South Sudan is hungry,” Oduavi said. “There is no food. Markets are not accessible because roads are closed and people cannot cultivate their land because of conflict.
“Those who have cultivated their land do not harvest their food, they are chased away. Food insecurity is a problem for everyone in towns and villages. Children are malnourished, elderly people are dying as there is no food.”
Oduavi said: “We need the guns to be silent then we need to promote unity in South Sudan. The national cohesion that existed during the referendums needs to be restored first. This will take time, this is a process.
“Then we need our people who are displaced in refugee camps in the villages and in the mountains to descend and go back to their homes and begin to cultivate and build harmony. But this can only come if the guns are silent and civilians are respected.”