By Ilya Gridneff
BENTIU, South Sudan May 10, 2017 – The rusting remains of burnt out cars and even an old tank on the way to Bentiu town tells the story of fierce fighting that has forced at least 120,000 South Sudanese to seek shelter in the nearby United Nations protection of civilians site.
Bentiu, in Unity state, is a former vibrant hub in the north of South Sudan that has become a ghost town populated now with government-loyal soldiers and only a handful others providing essential services to its few remaining residents.
In the dilapidated and bullet-marked Bentiu Hospital, that has been repeatedly looted and striped of almost all materials, Samual Duop works in the outpatient therapeutic program (OTP) that sees at least 40 women a day every Monday and Tuesday. Through its implementing partner Care International, UNICEF is supporting this OTP by providing medicine and ready-to-use therapeutic foods for children suffering from malnutrition, counseling services and required treatment for pregnant and lactating mothers.
In October 2014 fighting around Bentiu saw hospital workers trapped inside for days. Now, as fighting spreads to other parts of Unity state, and due to limited space in the U.N protection site, displaced people are settling in nearby Rubkona or slowly returning to Bentiu and taking shelter in disused government facilities or shops.
Mr Duop pointed to six women sitting on the ground of the empty ward. They quietly fanned themselves or cradled their small children. He said this was a regular scene during the three years he has worked at the hospital.
“More women are coming here because there’s been fighting in Unity south, so people keep coming,” he said. “There’s also food shortages so life is getting very difficult.”
In another bare room, Santino Gatloy, a community nutrition worker in the hospital’s stabilisation clinic, is excited despite having lost count of how many times he has measured a baby’s arm, the thickness, their height and weight.
There is good news with a baby boy he has followed for nearly a month.
“He is improving,” he said with a smile. “He has gained almost a kilogram since coming here.”
Seven-month-old Wyawech Kiak Gany first came to the clinic in mid-April when she only weighed 5 kilograms and was severely malnourished. Three weeks later, the baby girl weighed 5.9 kilograms.
“Since I brought the child here she has improved. I am happy,” his mother Nyamnora That said.
But as mother and child leave another pair enters. Nyamut Wicyier holds the limp hand of her severely malnourished 4-year-old Maliah Gathak Riak.
“He has a fever at night, he is coughing, he is not eating because there are food shortages,” she said.
This year, over 1 million South Sudanese children are estimated to be acutely malnourished, with 276,000 children severely malnourished and in need of immediate life-saving aid.
As a response to the deteriorating food security and malnutrition situation in parts of Unity state, and with generous support from the donors, UNICEF has been able to preposition 8,000 cartons of ready-to-use therapeutic foods in Bentiu and plans to further preposition 6,000 more cartons before the rainy season commences.
Mr Gatloy takes the required measurements to confirm the obvious. He informs the mother the child is severely malnourished and refers her for treatment in the hospital’s newly established stablisation ward.
It is here where the seriousness of the health situation in Bentiu presents itself.
Mother of two, Nylolual Jany cradles her tiny one-year-old son Nymay Wol who is severely malnourished and has suffered diarrhoea for the past two months.
In the ward’s next bed is 40-year-old Nyakama Chiok who’s one-year-old son Chainy Char is facing a similar dilemma.
“Since the fighting began it has been difficult,” she said. “My child is very sick.”
Nyakama and her son left Moyom county, east of Bentiu, to live in Rubkona the neighbouring town of Bentiu.
“I feel safe now but we don’t have enough food, we came to town to get food from the World Food Program,” she said.
Mankin Kuol is also from Mayom county and now staying in Rubkona. She tightly held her ten-month-old son Bedong Both. For the past two months Bedong Both has had diarrhoea and had become dangerously thin.
“We have been affected by the fighting since 2013. We have been force to leave our village and can’t find food. There are many problems we face,” she said.
In February famine was declared in parts of Unity state while other counties are considered to have a high likelihood or risk of famine. Hunger, and malnutrition will continue in Unity state
Jacob Gatdet, a clinical officer at the Bentiu hospital stablisation clinic, passed each bed and assured the mothers that their children were on the road to recovery.
“I was here in Bentiu since 2011 well before the first fighting broke out in 2013. Because of the war many people have lost their property and now rely on World Food Programme rations,” he said.
Gatdet echoed other health professionals at the hospital that they are seeing more patients.
“It’s due to food insecurity. With malnutrition medical complications often come with it. We provide antibiotics, or milk formula but we have very basic conditions and limited supplies, the fighting has to stop,” he said.
But providing treatment for malnutrition to children is not enough. As food security deteriorates it is also important to give families hope and let them learn how they can better cope with the situation.
This year UNICEF has launched a new initiative for mothers of children suffering from malnutrition. Partnering with a local NGO Gredo and local health authorities UNICEF is supporting a farming project, where women are given tools and knowledge on how to work the land, plant and grow various fruits and vegetables as well as how to cook them to diversify their diet.
Families in the north of South Sudan mainly relied on their livestock, which has gradually become more and more difficult with the ongoing insecurity and displacement.
It is a very new project, the eggplants, okras, onions and tomatoes have just shown their green leafs and are still in the nurseries. But, more importantly, the enthusiasm of these women is inspiring them to eagerly attend their gardens every day. Everyone is impatiently waiting to see the plants grow so they cook them for their recovering children.