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Conflicts and drought mean famine looms for 20 million Africans


Catholic News Service

Conflict and drought are threatening more than 20 million people in four countries with the prospect of famine, and the U.N. has called this food crisis the largest humanitarian crisis since the world body was formed more than 70 years ago.

A man walks by a dead cow in Dong Boma, South Sudan, April 12. Up to 20 million people in South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia and northeast Nigeria face the prospect of famine this year. (CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)

Additional resources and funding are needed “to pull people back from the brink of famine” in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and northeast Nigeria, the U.N. Security Council said in an Aug. 9 statement that commended efforts by international donors to provide humanitarian assistance for the crises in these countries.

Catholic church officials and representatives of Catholic aid agencies spoke with Catholic News Service about the enormous efforts being channeled into meeting the needs of those most vulnerable.

Governments “are reducing aid, while needs are skyrocketing,” said Elizabeth Carosella, who works for the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services in Abuja, Nigeria.

Humans cannot control the weather patterns, such as drought. But increasingly, aid officials find access to areas of need blocked by ongoing conflicts or inaccessible because of poor infrastructure.

Yemen situation ‘horrific

Jerry Farrell, country representative in South Sudan for CRS, was Save the Children’s country director in Yemen until mid-2014. He called the situation in Yemen “horrific,” a famine that is entirely man-made. Seventy percent of the country’s 14 million people need some form of humanitarian aid.

Yemen has relied entirely on imported food since 1991 and “now it is sealed off from the rest of the world,” Farrell said. Yemen has been embroiled in civil war since 2015, which includes a Saudi-led blockade of the country.

Yemen’s food system has collapsed, Farrell said, noting that even hospitals have been bombed, and it is “as difficult to get medical supplies into the country as it is to get food in.”

The World Health Organization reports 436,000 cases of cholera in Yemen.

Bishop Paul Hinder, who heads the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, told CNS that the blockade of Yemen hinders the reconstruction of the destroyed sanitary system.

“As long as the minimal infrastructure in many parts of the country is not functioning, we cannot expect that the cholera can be stopped” or that “the starving people” can be properly fed, Bishop Hinder said.

“Without bringing people again around the table” to agree on a cease-fire, “there will be only killing and destruction with disastrous consequences for the civilian population,” he said.

“As the church is reduced to a tiny group without any structure, little can be done from our side at present,” he said.

“As I believe in the power of the prayer, I can only ask the faithful around the world to keep in mind the suffering people in Yemen — Muslims as well as the few remaining Christians, including the Missionaries of Charity,” Bishop Hinder said.

2 million face famine in South Sudan

In South Sudan, nearly 2 million people are on the cusp of famine, Farrell said, and it is hard to get food to the hungry because the country has “virtually no infrastructure.” South Sudan, a country slightly smaller than Texas, has only 12,000 miles of road, which is “more like track than road,” said Farrell, noting that”the lack of infrastructure can’t be separated from the conflict.”

In the fertile land of South Sudan’s Western Equatoria state, which has avoided the drought afflicting other parts of the country, little grows because of the war, he said. And even if the residents were still able to grow mangoes and papayas in this “breathtakingly beautiful place,” there are no roads to get any excess food to people outside, he said.

“Fresh food rots because it takes weeks to get it out of there with tracks to follow instead of roads, and one can expect frequent ambushes along the way,” Farrell said.

In distributing food airdropped by the World Food Program, CRS finds “some places very difficult to get to because of active conflict,” he said. Other places are unreachable for many months because of flooding. People often walk four or five miles to food distribution points in South Sudan, he added.

About 200,000 of the 2 million internally displaced people in South Sudan are in U.N.-run camps, Farrell said. The rest have fled into the bush or into neighboring communities, “and they all want to go home to their land.”

Farrell said the tragedy of South Sudan “tires me out more and fills me with more sorrow” than even Yemen’s situation did. In 2013, two years after gaining independence from Sudan, South Sudan was caught up in a civil war.

“South Sudan is a new country, rich in resources, and all this suffering is preventable,” said Farrell, who is based in the capital, Juba.

“Education is what matters most for young people because they will be the new leaders,” he said. Instead, because of the conflict and violence, all efforts need to be directed into emergency feeding programs, “while 75 percent of women in the country cannot read or write,” he said.

Maryknoll Father John Barth, who is based in Eastern Equatoria state, told CNS South Sudanese “are giving up hope and moving to the camps in northern Uganda by the thousands; I see them along the road when I drive back and forth across the border.”

Uganda is hosting about 1 million refugees from South Sudan. They move because “they have no food,” Father Barth said.

Teachers and others with government jobs have not been paid their monthly salaries in five months, and “even if they had been paid it would be the equivalent of about $6, because the 500 percent inflation has ruined the value of the South Sudanese pound,” Father Barth said.

In Nigeria, 5 million need emergency food aid

In northeastern Nigeria, the effects of violent conflict as well as changing weather patterns have exacerbated poverty and led to 5 million people in need of emergency food aid, Carosella told CNS, noting that deaths from famine-related causes have already occurred in Borno state. Since 2009, more than 20,000 people have been killed and 2.7 million forced to flee their homes by the Boko Haram insurgency, aimed at creating an Islamic state in northeast Nigeria.

Carosella said while the severity of the region’s hunger crisis is caused by conflict, the shorter rainy season of recent years has dramatically reduced harvests, and much of Lake Chad has dried up, partly because of shifting climate patterns.

Many of those forced to flee the violence have sought refuge among communities in remote rural areas, she said, noting that these communities are themselves among the most vulnerable in the region and depend on humanitarian aid to survive. Remote rural communities hosting people displaced by Boko Haram attacks have been “immensely generous despite their own poverty,” she said.

Carosella said Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, “used to be a trade hub, but its markets have been destroyed” by the Boko Haram attacks.

“People have lost their livelihoods and now can’t afford food and have no access to even basic services,” she said.

Even where food can be found, it is unaffordable for most people, she said.

Sometimes a very malnourished woman will sell part of her food ration for cash that will enable her to transport a sick child to a clinic, Carosella said.

“Having to make that choice is something no one should have to face,” she said.

She told of a 24-year-old woman she met at a hospital in Maiduguri.

“She fled her village with her four children, all under 5 years old, after seeing her husband and parents slaughtered” in an attack by Boko insurgents, Carosella said.

One of her children died in the 32 days it took her to walk to the hospital, where her “malnourished children were able to be rehabilitated,” Carosella said. “She was looking for livelihood opportunities when I met her,” she said, noting that “there are so many women in similar positions.”

Continuing conflict in Somalia

Somalia’s “continuous conflict and instability,” along with changing weather patterns, are responsible for its current crisis, Lane Bunkers, CRS country representative for Kenya and Somalia, told CNS.

The conflict started in 1991 when clan-based warlords overthrew dictator Siad Barre, then turned on each other. Today, the security threat posed by al-Shabab activity in south-central Somalia makes it difficult for CRS and others running emergency food programs to reach remote rural communities, Bunkers said.

Somalia is a “very undeveloped country that relies on rain, with rain-fed pasturelands,” and there has been insufficient rain for two years in a row, Bunkers said.

Drought conditions in Somalia are expected to continue, and recovery will not be until at least 2018, CRS said in a statement. More than 766,000 people have been displaced by the drought since November, it said.

In south-central Somalia, which includes the capital, Mogadishu, CRS has civil society partners to channel its resources for humanitarian relief.

“Somalia has very well-organized communities,” Bunkers said, noting that local communities have “stepped in to fill the void in education and health services” in partnerships with international nongovernmental organizations.

Somalis are “entrepreneurial people in a desperately poor country,” which has exceptionally active markets, Bunkers said. This is “born out of necessity” in a country that has had no functioning government for close to three decades, he said.

Somalis’ “wealth is held in their herd of animals,” Bunkers said, noting that in times of drought, men leave women and children behind and follow their goats, sheep or camels, seeking water and grazing land.

“It’s very rare to resort to killing animals for food” in Somalia, Bunkers said.

To help families where animals are already in distress, some relief agencies “pay the farmer for his goat and have him slaughter it so that his family has something to eat,” he said.

“The farmers are then able to use the cash at the markets to replenish their livelihoods,” he said.

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Dec.1, World AIDS Day: In South Africa, stigma still keeps HIV patients from treatment


Catholic News Service

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Each week, 2,000 women ages 15-24 are infected with HIV in South Africa.

In poor communities, young women are mostly infected through sex with older men who provide for them and, while testing is easy and readily available, few men get tested until they are seriously ill.

A child at an orphanage for those infected with HIV attends a candlelight prayer on the eve of World AIDS Day in Kathmandu, Nepal, Nov. 30. (CNS photo/Narendra Shrestha, EPA)

A child at an orphanage for those infected with HIV attends a candlelight prayer on the eve of World AIDS Day in Kathmandu, Nepal, Nov. 30. (CNS photo/Narendra Shrestha, EPA)

“Men have told me that the reason for this is that the clinics are mostly staffed by women and that women talk too much,” said Dr. Annette Houston, who works for Hope, an HIV outreach project with international Catholic funding.

Houston works at a pediatric HIV clinic in Delft, a township on the outskirts of Cape Town. She told CNS unless HIV-positive women and girls are taking antiretroviral drugs, if they contract HIV while breastfeeding they can pass on the virus to their babies. Houston said she sees an “urgent need to persuade breastfeeding women to come for testing every three months.”

In trying to get HIV-positive men to get treatment, Doctors Without Borders and other organizations have begun setting up HIV clinics primarily for men.

Pauline Jooste, who oversees Hope’s community outreach projects, said being HIV-positive still carries a lot of stigma for men and women. She said some mothers will not tell their children that they, too, are infected.

In an interview at Hope’s office in Blikkiesdorp, a temporary settlement area within Delft where 15,000 people live in corrugated tin shacks, Jooste said that, to understand the reluctance to talk about being infected, “you need to bring it home.”

When health officials ask women when they plan to tell their children they have HIV, “when he or she is old enough is the answer you hear,” Jooste said.

Pauline Jooste, who oversees a South African HIV outreach project with international Catholic funding, walks with Gerald Flagg, a community worker, at the organization's Blikkiesdorp premises near Cape Town Nov. 15. (CNS photo/Bronwen Dachs)

Pauline Jooste, who oversees a South African HIV outreach project with international Catholic funding, walks with Gerald Flagg, a community worker, at the organization’s Blikkiesdorp premises near Cape Town Nov. 15. (CNS photo/Bronwen Dachs)

“Imagine how difficult it must be to tell a teenager she is HIV-positive and wait for her to ask, ‘So how did you get HIV, Mom?’” she said.

At Delft clinic, “we try to initiate conversations” between mothers and their HIV-positive children, Houston said, noting that children should know their HIV status by the time they are 10 or 11 years old.

“Often, the mother is battling with anger or shame and needs someone to talk to,” she said. “We give mothers and children books that they can read together that can help children understand what HIV is and how to live with it.

“Sometimes the children know, but they don’t tell that they know, which creates an unhealthy dynamic in the family,” she said.

South Africa’s HIV epidemic is among the most severe in the world. According to U.N. estimates, 6.4 million people, 12.2 percent of South Africa’s population, are HIV positive.

Dominican Sister Alison Munro, director of the AIDS office for the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said about 3.4 million people are on antiretroviral drugs.

The risk of HIV transmission is enormously reduced when those infected take antiretroviral drugs regularly, Sister Munro said in a telephone interview from Pretoria.

Orphans and other vulnerable children are the main focus group of the AIDS office and “we are working on getting as many tested and on treatment” as possible, she said.

Sister Munro said South Africa has 41 orphan programs funded by PEPFAR, the U.S. government initiative to provide AIDS relief, and there are more than 100 other programs in dioceses and parishes across the country.

Until 2008, when a new health minister was appointed, South African officials infuriated AIDS activists by questioning the link between HIV and AIDS and holding back on providing antiretroviral drugs. But Houston said that, since then, “I’ve seen kids born with HIV finish high school and go to college, which is so rewarding.”

The drive to have everyone who tests HIV-positive on medication brings with it the danger of developing drug resistance, she said, noting that in the past treatment was provided to HIV-positive patients only when they became at risk of developing AIDS.

“There’s no coming back from drug resistance,” Houston said, noting that church and other programs work hard to ensure that people adhere to their treatment regimen.

Avoiding drug resistance “is our biggest challenge now, and we can’t leave children in a situation where they take drugs on an ad hoc basis,” she said.

Hope project staff sometimes move children into temporary care so that their HIV treatment can be managed while the project works to bring stability to their home environments, Houston said.

“Sometimes the mother needs to go for drug or alcohol rehabilitation,” she said, noting that substance abuse is very common in South Africa’s poor communities.

Adherence to a medication regimen among teenagers “is notoriously bad, but this is not unique to HIV,” Houston added.

Jooste said the Hope project services up to 40,000 people a month. She said HIV-positive patients in Blikkiesdorp and other areas are given reference letters for health centers, shown where to go and “told to look out for our health workers wearing red shirts that say Hope.”

The project’s community workers check that patients comply with their medication needs and even accompany those with no income to government offices, where they can apply for social grants, Jooste said.

“A lot can be achieved when you have someone speaking on your behalf,” she said.

Blikkiesdorp, which means tin-can town in the Western Cape language of Afrikaans, has an unemployment rate of about 65 percent, and most residents are on a list for free government housing. Many who live in the area are immigrants from Somalia and Congo and fear attacks on foreigners.

“We never ask for identification documents; we are here to serve everyone,” Jooste said, yet immigrants “don’t even come to our regular family health days where clinics bring their general services to our premises.”

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Catholic missionaries stay in South Sudan after brutal attack on foreigners


Catholic News Service

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — While most expatriate aid workers left South Sudan after a brutal attack on foreigners in the capital, a group of Catholic missionaries chose to stay.

Soldiers with Gen. Simon Gatwech Dual, the chief of staff of the South Sudan rebel troops, arrive in late April in Juba. (CNS photo/Phillip Dhil, EPA)

Soldiers with Gen. Simon Gatwech Dual, the chief of staff of the South Sudan rebel troops, arrive in late April in Juba. (CNS photo/Phillip Dhil, EPA)

“We stayed because we are committed to the ordinary people who are suffering so much,” La Sallian Christian Brother Bill Firman, director of Solidarity with South Sudan, said in an Aug. 29 telephone interview from Juba, the capital.

“My colleagues and I believe this is a good place for religious to be,” the Australian brother said, noting that “we know our continued presence encourages” local residents and “provides some hope.”

South Sudanese troops attacked aid workers in July in a Juba hotel. According to an Associated Press report, more than 80 armed men “raped several foreign women, singled out Americans, beat and robbed people and carried out mock executions” for nearly four hours. One woman was raped by 15 men.

U.N. peacekeepers did not respond to repeated pleas for help.

Four days after the attack Catholic Relief Services, the humanitarian aid and development agency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement that the upsurge in violence in Juba had led it to evacuate its “non-essential international staff” from the capital.

CRS “is supporting the work of Solidarity with South Sudan to help those affected by the current violence with food, water and shelter in churches and schools, where many have sought refuge,” the July 15 statement from Baltimore said.

A civil war that began December 2013 has claimed tens of thousands of lives and forced more than 2 million people to flee their homes in the northeast African country. In July, hundreds of people in Juba were killed in fighting that dashed hopes of a transitional government ending the conflict. Since then, sporadic fighting has rocked the north and east of the country.

“None of our members were evacuated but many, probably most, expatriates were,” Brother Firman said. “Many foreign aid workers are returning now, and most of CRS’ staff came back fairly quickly.”

Solidarity with South Sudan is an international Catholic group of missionaries implementing teacher and health training, agriculture, trauma healing and pastoral programs in many parts of South Sudan, under the auspices of the Sudan Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

“I don’t see any of our people being excessively nervous, and we are living a normal life here,” Brother Firman said. “But we are cautious, because we do live with uncertainty about the future and declining law and order.”

“Many people in Juba are very hungry,” Brother Firman said, noting that “the collapse of South Sudan’s economy” is a major concern.

South Sudan has a “very complex political situation, with many militias,” Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Joan Mumaw, Solidarity with South Sudan’s development director in the U.S., said in an Aug. 27 telephone interview from Silver Spring, Maryland.

“Violence has spread and everybody is armed,” she said, noting that “young boys with no education and no formation for life are taken into the military.”

Solidarity with South Sudan, which has a network of 17 congregations in 14 countries, uses its local religious partners to distribute humanitarian aid “to people most in need” for aid organizations whose usual routes have been disrupted, she said. As the “only credible group left in the predominantly Christian country,” the church, with its “strong ecumenical reach, has a chance of restoring peace” to South Sudan, Sister Mumaw said.

“But it will be very difficult to do this until the militia is stopped from killing and raping,” she said, noting a “new and complete lack of respect for human life.”

After a late-December attack on religious sisters at the Solidarity teacher training college in Yambio, the capital of South Sudan’s Western Equatoria state, and subsequent sporadic violence in the area, some training staff from neighboring Kenya and Uganda were evacuated, Sister Mumaw said.

“This leaves us with a shortage of staff in our capacity-building programs, and there is some feeling among local people that the international community has deserted them,” she said.

A primary school teacher who was among 50 graduates from the college last year has set up a makeshift school for about 300 children at a U.N. camp in Juba, Sister Mumaw said.

“This young man recognized the need and has pulled together everyone with training that he could find to educate these children,” she said. “The camp was built to house U.N. staff, not refugees, yet people fleeing violence have been taking shelter there for about two years.”

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