U.N. Warns That Millions of People in South Sudan Are in Urgent Need of Food

Women who fled fighting in South Sudan waited for food to be distributed in the town of Bentiu in October. The United Nations has declared a famine in the country. (Kate Holt/Unicef, via Associated Press)

War and a collapsing economy have set off a famine in South Sudan, the United Nations announced on Monday, and millions of people are in urgent need of food.

An ethnic conflict erupted three years ago in South Sudan, killing tens of thousands, driving millions from their homes and hindering delivery of lifesaving aid. Malnutrition rates have soared above emergency levels, and countless people have died of hunger, United Nations officials said.

“Our worst fears have been realized,” said Serge Tissot of the Food and Agriculture Organization, part of the United Nations.

So far, the famine has affected a relatively small area in the northern part of the country, where the conflict between the government and rebel groups has been most intense. Thousands of people in that area have fled their homes, and many are living deep in the swamps or sweltering bush and surviving off wild plants and filthy water.

Battles are still raging in many parts of South Sudan, and United Nations officials fear the famine could soon spread.

“Over a quarter of a million children are already severely malnourished,” said Jeremy Hopkins, a Unicef official in South Sudan. “If we do not reach these children with urgent aid, many of them will die.”

South Sudan constitutes one of the biggest emergencies in Africa, perhaps the largest. The country broke off from Sudan in 2011 after decades of guerrilla warfare. After two years of peace, South Sudan cracked open in internecine conflict that pitted armed men from the largest ethnic groups against each other. Each side fields tens of thousands of battle-hardened soldiers who often target civilians.

African Union investigators have detailed accounts of massacres, mass rapes and forced cannibalism.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Jeffrey Gettleman