From a displacement camp in Juba, former director of agriculture watches as his state slides closer to a food crisis

September 16, 2014
Originally published in: The Huffington Post
Written by Crystal Wells
Photo by Crystal Wells

Before the war, James Gatluak was preparing farmers for planting season. Now his state is sliding closer to a severe food crisis and he is stuck in a camp miles away, unable to return home.

A year ago, James Gatluak (38) was working with farmers across all nine counties in Unity State to increase food production. Today, he is stuck in a displacement camp in Juba, his state overrun by violence and its people sliding closer to a severe food crisis.

Before civil war broke out in South Sudan, Gatluak was working as the Director of Agriculture for the government of Unity State, helping farmers to increase their yields in hopes that Unity State would one day be food secure. Before that, he was Unity’s Director General of Environment and Natural Resources, and in that capacity was interviewed by the Washington Post in 2011.

James Gatluak and his wife and children live in the UN House, one of two camps in Juba.

James Gatluak and his wife and children live in the UN House, one of two camps in Juba.

Today he lives with his family in a makeshift shelter on dusty red ground. When humanitarian crises hit countries around the world, governments are often strained at the seams, which is one reason organizations like Concern Worldwide step in to help. In this case, Gatluak’s story makes those government stresses unusually clear.

For the moment, his goal of food security for Unity is shattered, as the state and its capital, Bentiu, have been a flashpoint in the country’s eight-month-long civil war, largely because of the oil fields that come with it. The conflict has forced people to scatter, with some 47,000 seeking safety at the UN base in Bentiu, while the fields that Gatluak and the farmers had high hopes for remain unplanted.

“Food security and livelihoods can’t take place with insecurity,” Gatluak says. “No one will cultivate so long as there is fighting.”

Trapped in Juba

In December, Gatluak left his pregnant wife, Elizabeth, and their two children at their home in Bentiu to attend a workshop at the Ministry of Agriculture in Juba. He was there when, on the evening of December 15, gunfire erupted in the capital.

A political rivalry between President Salva Kiir and his former vice president Riek Machar boiled over, with soldiers splintering from the national army and forming an opposition group under Machar. Fighting descended upon Juba and quickly spread across the country, not even three years after South Sudan became an independent nation following decades of war.

“There was lots of confusion in the beginning.” says Gatluak.

Like thousands of others, he fled to a UN base on the outskirts of Juba for safety. It was not long before Bentiu was consumed by violence. Gatluak told his wife to head south to the town of Leer, but the fighting soon spread there.

UN containers at Tomping, a UN base that is now home to thousands of internally displaced people

UN containers at Tomping, a UN base that is now home to thousands of internally displaced people

This pattern continued until March, when they were reunited in the displacement camp known as UN House in Juba. One month later, his wife delivered twin girls. The family now lives under tarp and timber beside thousands of other displaced families, miles from home, the life that they once knew a distant memory.

A New Normal

More than 30,000 people live on the UN bases in Juba, their lives oddly on hold and moving forward at the same time. Many say so long as there is war, they feel safer on the UN base and are getting by with the support of organizations like Concern Worldwide. Gatluak says his home and land are gone and, despite his impressive resume, doesn’t know if he will have a job to return to when the war ends. “It’s a different environment now,” he says, cradling his two twins girls. “I am the caretaker of the children.”

Crisis in Unity State

The international community warns that if the conflict does not end, a severe food crisis will likely grip South Sudan at the end of the year or beginning of 2015. The UN estimates that four million people will be at risk of starvation and that 50,000 children could die. The northern states of Upper Nile, Jonglei, and Unity, where most of the heaviest fighting has taken place, will likely be the epicenter of the crisis.

The ongoing instability makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for humanitarian organizations like Concern Worldwide to help people living outside of the UN bases in remote areas deep in the bush. This, coupled with the fact that there will be no crops to harvest by the time the rains end in November, paints a very grim picture for a country that celebrated its third birthday just this past July.

One-year-old Kaothin Abra visits Concern's nutrition center with his moth Nyamet Mut

One-year-old Kaothin Abra visits Concern’s nutrition center with his moth Nyamet Mut

“The priorities for people now are to survive,” Gatluak explains. “They are not focused on their crops…There is starvation. Everything now is emergency.”

If the War Ends

With a fourth ceasefire broken within hours of signing, peace seems tenuous in South Sudan. If peace does come, Gatluak wants to resume his work with the farmers of Unity State.

He believes that, with the help of the government and organizations like Concern, they can go back to creating a Unity State that produces enough food to feed itself. “There are a lot of resources in Unity,” he explains, “lots of oil, lots of agriculture. It’s a rich state…At the end of the conflict, I hope that we will unite together.”

This article was originally published in Huffington Post Impact