Sudan was one of those nations I knew very little about except for the occasional news bulletin or striking image by a colleague covering the brutal conflict that raged between North and South , African and Arab , fuelled I assume by oil and generations of racial oppression . In the not too distant past even Hollywood celebrities began speaking out about the gross injustices suffered by non Arabs in Sudan including accusations of genocide in Darfur . Finally in 2011 South Sudan gained independence and personally, probably out of ignorance I assumed that all would now be well .
I've just come back from a visit to South Sudan for the Daily Telegraph with some tremendous help on the ground from UNICEF UK and other UN agencies . In fact without UNICEF the trip may never have happened, working as a journalist in this fledgling nation is incredibly difficult and often dangerous . Navigating the bureaucracy to gain all the correct accreditation and Visas alone needs a phd, a lot of patience and smiles when all you want to do is pull out your hair scream at someone .
I travelled with Tom Rowley a feature writer at the Daily Telegraph who was awarded " Young Journalist of the Year 2016 " by the British Press Awards, and recently moved over to our Foreign Desk . Tom had a few good ideas for stories for the trip but as always working for a newspaper things always change on the ground .
Our original plan was to travel north of the capital Juba to the town of Bentiu but famine was declared shortly before departure and on arrival it appeared that aid flights were now far busier with ...you guessed it aid, and journalists were understandably long down their list of priorities .
One of our original stories did still work out, we watched as 25 yr old mother Nyabura Nyon was reunited with her children after being torn apart by the conflict three years before . This took place in the POC Three camp inside the enormous UN compound on the outskirts of Juba where over 20,000 civilians currently reside, half of those children .
Nearby in a clinic funded with UN money children are treated daily with acute malnutrition, it's heart rending to see young children suffering so appallingly . I probably shot some of my most powerful images here for our articles and also took the time to make a short video for online with the basic kit I'd brought with me .
On Day four we took an ancient Russian MI8 UN helicopter up country to a rebel held area of Unity State with some other members of the media and senior staff from the UN, WFP and OCHA to see a food drop in action . We'd been lucky the previous few days which had been overcast and in the late twenties , perfect for pictures and two un-climatised westerners but today the clouds had dissipated and the temperature was in the mid to late thirties and I had stupidly left my hat at the hotel .
The village of Padeah was a collection of traditional thatched, conical roofed mud buildings linked by pathways through tall grass where occasionally you pass by a collection of women going about their daily routine or men casually carrying their AK47's . After about twenty minutes walk we came to a large clearing with so many people at first the sound was like that of a hive until i got closer and could differentiate all the separate voices . Hundreds of women were sitting in single files waiting patiently as WFP staff a few hundred meters away were administering the rationing of sorghum grain into large white bags . Many of these women had walked for three hours or more from neighbouring villages after months of existing on water lilies , the fighting had made it impossible to farm or harvest in the previous season and food was in desperately short supply . With the rainy season coming in the next few months and no sign of a peaceful resolution on the horizon theres a good chance that sewing crops and then harvesting will again be missed further exacerbating the food crisis.
That afternoon I got back to our hotel in Juba dehydrated with a splitting headache but unlike the villages we'd spend a couple of hours with we were immediately able to order Cokes and Pizzas or whatever else we fancied from a comprehensive menu . This is what makes the famine in South Sudan so disgraceful , this famine isn't because of a drought or a major environmental catastrophe, this famine is completely man made . Whilst men, women and children are close to starvation several hundred miles away in the fledgling nation's capital Juba the affluent live their lives in a bubble . Down the road form our hotel another throws regular pool parties, sparkling new air conditioned SUV's bump across Juba's appalling unpaved roads ferrying the Elite who profit from the suffering of their people or the Foreign Aid Workers who struggle to keep the rest of the population alive . In the newly independent South Sudan politics and tribal affiliations can mean the difference between life and death .