After nearly a week of hiding from conflict, Kallayn Keneng watched two of her young children die. “They cried and cried and said, ‘Mom, we need food,'" she said. But she had nothing to give. Too frail to bury her 5-year-old and 7-year-old after days without eating, she covered their bodies with grass and left them in the forest.
Now the mourning 40-year-old awaits food aid, one of more than 30,000 people said to be in likely famine in South Sudan's Pibor county. The new finding by international food security experts means this could be the first part of the world in famine since one was declared in 2017 in another part of the country then deep in civil war.
South Sudan is one of four countries with areas that could slip into famine, the United Nations has warned, along with Yemen, Burkina Faso and northeastern Nigeria.
Pibor county this year has seen deadly local violence and unprecedented flooding that have hurt aid efforts. On a visit to the town of Lekuangole this month, seven families told The Associated Press that 13 of their children starved to death between February and November.
The head of Lekuangole’s government, Peter Golu, said he received unprecedented reports from community leaders that 17 children had died from hunger there and in surrounding villages between September and December.
The Famine Review Committee’s report, released this month by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, stops short of declaring famine because of insufficient data. But famine is thought to be occurring, meaning at least 20% of households face extreme food gaps and at least 30% of children are acutely malnourished.
But South Sudan’s government is not endorsing the report's findings. If a famine were occurring it would be seen as a failure, it says.
“They are making assumptions. … We are here dealing with facts, they are not on the ground,” said John Pangech, the chair of South Sudan’s food security committee. The government says 11,000 people across the country are on the brink of starvation — far less than the 105,000 estimated by the new report by food security experts.
The government also expects that 60% of the country’s population, or some 7 million people, could face extreme hunger next year, with the hardest hit areas in Warrap, Jonglei and Northern Bahr el Ghazal states.
South Sudan has been struggling to recover from a five-year civil war. Food security experts say the magnitude of the hunger crisis has been mostly created by the fighting. That includes bouts of violence this year between communities with alleged support from the government and opposition.
The government “is not only denying the severity of what is happening but is denying the basic fact that its own policies and military tactics are responsible,” said Alex de Waal, author of “Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine” and executive director of the World Peace Foundation.
More than 2,000 people have been killed this year in localized violence that’s been “weaponized” by people acting in their own interests, the head of the U.N. mission in South Sudan, David Shearer, has said. Violence has prevented people from cultivating, blocked supply routes, burned down markets and killed aid workers.
Families in Lekuangole said their crops were destroyed by the fighting. They now subsist on leaves and fruits.
During violence in July, Kidrich Korok’s 9-year-old son Martin became separated from the family and spent more than a week in the forest. By the time he was found, severely malnourished, it was too late.
“He would always tell me that he’d study hard and do something good for me when he grew up,” Korok said, weeping. “Even while he was dying, he kept reassuring me that I shouldn’t worry.”
Staff at the health clinic in Lekuangole registered 20 severely malnourished children in the first week and a half of December, more than five times the number of cases for the same period last year, said a nurse, Gabriel Gogol.
Flooding has cut off most road access to Pibor town and its better medical care, forcing some severely sick children to travel for three days along the river in flimsy plastic rafts.
Officials in Pibor county say they don’t understand why South Sudan's government isn’t acknowledging the scale of the hunger.
“If people are saying in (the capital) that there’s no famine in Pibor, they’re lying and want people to die,” said David Langole Varo, who works for the humanitarian arm of the government in the Greater Pibor Administrative Area.
In Pibor town, malnourished mothers and children wait for hours outside health clinics, hoping for food.
In a joint statement last week, three U.N. agencies called for immediate access to parts of Pibor county where people were facing catastrophic levels of hunger.
The World Food Program has faced challenges in delivering aid this year. Approximately 635 metric tons of food were stolen from Pibor county and Jonglei state, enough to feed 72,000 people, and an air drop of food in Lekuangole killed an elderly woman in October.
The WFP said it needs more than $470 million over the next six months to address the hunger crisis.
Families now worry about a resurgence in fighting as the dry season approaches.
Sitting in a clinic run by Doctors Without Borders in Pibor town, Elizabeth Girosdh watched her 8-month old twins fight over her breast milk. The 45-year-old lost her crops during fighting in her village of Verteth in June. One of the twins is severely malnourished.
“Sometimes I try to breastfeed but I can’t and the kids cry and cry all night,” she said. “If there’s not enough food, I worry I could lose them."