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Famine Declared In Parts Of War-Torn South Sudan


South Sudan has been embroiled in a civil war for the past three years, and now the United Nations has declared a famine there. The U.N. is accusing the South Sudanese government of blocking aid supplies to those who need it most. For more, we're joined by Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times, who is in Nairobi, after finishing up a two-week reporting trip in South Sudan. Thanks so much for being with us, Jeffrey.


MARTIN: This announcement came down from the U.N. this morning, declaring a famine in South Sudan. Things have been bad there for a long time. Can you tell us what changed to create this designation?

GETTLEMAN: The biggest concern is getting emergency supplies to war-torn areas, and that has been a growing problem. So as things have deteriorated in South Sudan, there's been this big push to bring emergency supplies to people that are desperate right now. And in the last few months, aid convoys and warehouses have been attacked, both by the government and by the rebels. And the humanitarian organizations are retreating. And there's this worry that a - you know, millions of people could starve because it's very, very difficult bringing them the food that they need.

MARTIN: What is the status of the war? I mean, you were just there. What did you see?

GETTLEMAN: God, it's really depressing. I was in South Sudan a few years ago when they had this jubilant celebration for their independence. That was in 2011. And there was so much hope and unity and a sense that this country was embarking on a future together. And in the last few years, that's all crumbled. And right now, we're seeing this conflict spread across different areas of South Sudan that had been relatively peaceful.

I was just in a area in the southern part of the country. And it's a beautiful, green, very lush agriculture area. And this had been spared most of the conflict over the decades. And now, there are armed groups fighting in this area. I saw burned huts, villages that were totally depopulated. I interviewed people that had horrible stories of being brutalized by government soldiers. And so there's just this worry that the country is deteriorating across the board and that there's really no solution in sight to bring it back together.

MARTIN: Does the president of South Sudan still have any kind of public support at this point?

GETTLEMAN: Well, the problem with South Sudan is everything is divided ethnically. So among his ethnic group, the Dinka, which is the biggest in South Sudan, he still enjoys a lot of support. But more and more groups that are not part of that are against him. The president has shown no effort really to reach out to the other groups in a meaningful way and to try to make the country less of a Dinka-dominated government. And that's the biggest fear is that, unless he does that, all these other opposition groups are going to remain against him.

MARTIN: If you say the conflict is spreading within the country, is there a concern more broadly that the war could spill over into neighboring countries?

GETTLEMAN: It could, but that's not the primary concern right now. You know, for instance, Kenya borders South Sudan, and Kenya's pretty stable - same with Uganda. These - you know, the problem in South Sudan is that it's a very weak government, and you have tens of thousands of young men that know little else except how to fight and how to wage war. And until you figure out a way to absorb them into more productive parts of the economy, I think the fear is that there's going to be that kindling and that material for warfare that's going to exist and be very easily ignited.

MARTIN: So what now? The U.N. has declared a famine in South Sudan. Does that help anything? I mean, does that bring more awareness? Is that likely to compel the government to let those humanitarian convoys through?

GETTLEMAN: It's basically a cry for help. The U.N. is saying we're desperate here. We need resources. We need cooperation. We need more involvement by other countries to really push the government to do something about this.

But it's a political problem. It's the fact that much of the country is resisting the government and that the government is responding very brutally. So until you address that, I don't think there's going to be a lot of relief in the humanitarian area. And I think that's the biggest problem.

MARTIN: Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times, talking to us about South Sudan. Thank you so much for your time.

GETTLEMAN: Glad to help. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.