“Food,” says John Lasona, “tortures my mind.” Hunched over, bare-chested, the 48-year-old father in Lainya town runs his fingers over his hollowed frame. “The hunger is killing me.”
Once regarded as South Sudan’s breadbasket, the ravaged Equatoria region is slipping into catastrophe, its once self-reliant citizens now dependent on handouts.
An estimated 1.25 million people in South Sudan are on the brink of starvation, according to the latest food and security analysis update by the UN and South Sudan’s National Bureau of Statistics, released in November.
Almost half the population in Central Equatoria – 390,000 people – are facing extreme hunger, a number that’s expected to increase significantly in the coming months.
Residents in Yei and Lainya towns say they’re living in a prison and blame the government for stealing their food and denying them access to their fields.
In October, government soldiers took food from Lasona’s house, leaving him and his seven children with nothing to eat. “How can I ask soldiers with guns for my food back?” he says.
The world’s youngest nation has recently embarked on its fifth year of fighting. Amid allegations of war crimes and “ethnic cleansing” that has killed tens of thousands since December 2013, the civil war has also plunged pockets of the country into famine.
Although the Equatoria region hasn’t been declared to be at the level of famine yet, aid groups say the situation is very troubling.
“It’s the worst humanitarian situation I’ve seen,” says John Okoboi, a nutritionist working with the South Sudan Health Association, one of the few local groups operating in Lainya.
Okoboi has seen three children die in recent months because of malnutrition. The youngest was four months old.
At the start of the war, the Equatoria states went largely unscathed. It wasn’t until renewed clashes erupted in the capital of Juba in July 2016 that fighting spread to the southern region, causing 1 million people to flee and creating the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis, according to the United Nations.
Today, the once bustling expanse has become a ghost region. Earlier this month, the Guardian drove from Yei to Lainya, a stretch of 40 miles, and saw two civilians.
Amid the serenity of rolling hills and greenery, the route was littered with charred vehicles, abandoned houses, looted shops, army barracks and patrolling government soldiers.
Although the towns are under government control, the surrounding bush is inhabited by rebels, leaving the civilians trapped in the middle.
“People are afraid to grow food,” says Okoboi. “If they cultivate [crops] and are caught by government soldiers they’ll be called rebels and get into trouble.
Advocacy groups say it’s a tragic situation. “In the space of a year, what used to be the breadbasket is now a place where people are starving for no reason other than the action of men on both sides of the political and sectarian divide who use food as a weapon as war,” says Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s senior crisis response adviser.
The Guardian spoke with more than 10 people in Yei and Lainya who said the government army was indiscriminately arresting and killing people caught three to four miles outside of town, claiming they were rebels.
In October, Grace Kaku, who lives in Lainya, says her sister was beaten and raped in the cassava fields when she left town to cultivate her crops.
The army denies the allegations, calling it “negative propaganda”, and Lainya’s commanding officer, General Mach Kudior, is adamant that there has been no theft. “It’s a lie about people stealing food,” he says.
Yei River state’s governor, David Lokonga Moses, says he’s putting the “priority of the government on the protection of the people”. What happened in 2016 has traumatised the population, he says, and “remained in their minds”. He insists that the situation has improved.
Although some civilians are trickling back into Yei and Lainya, the towns remain shells of the hubs they once were, with many people on the brink of starvation.
Regina Modo, a 65-year-old Yei resident, hasn’t cultivated crops in more than a year, instead relying on food aid. “I’ve seen people go to their farms and never come back,” she says.