After the unprecedented floods last summer, the people of Old Fangak, a small town in northern South Sudan, should be planting now. But the flood water has not receded, the people are still marooned and now they are facing severe hunger.
Unusually heavy rains began last July, and the White Nile burst its banks, destroyed all the crops and encroached on farms and villages, affecting Jonglei and other states, leaving people to scramble for a few strips of dry land.
Fields are still submerged, mud homes and stiff sticks of dead maize are slowly collapsing into the water, entire villages have been abandoned and large areas turned into swamps. Of the 62 villages served by Old Fangak’s central market, 45 are devastated by the flooded river.
The July harvest would have fed the local people through to this spring but all the crops were lost. Families sleep in abandoned schools or in the open on scraps of higher land. There is no question of migrating to dry areas as the flood extends for miles and at least Old Fangak is secluded from the constant conflict that besets much of the rest of the country.
The UN says that about 1.6 million people have been affected by the floods in a country where already at least 7.5 million people need assistance. A recent report by the Integrated food security Phase Classification, (IPC), an initiative by 15 organisations to tackle malnutrition, estimates that 6.4 million people, about half the population, will face acute food insecurity in 2021, and for half of them their lack of food will be an emergency.
Some people in South Sudan, such as those from Old Fangak, are partially or completely cut off from humanitarian aid. Access to the town is difficult in normal times, but the detritus of the floods has blocked the airstrip, which was cleared from the bush, and boat access from the river.
Data from South Sudan suggests that more erratic and unpredictable weather patterns are now the norm.
The floods were caused by the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), also known as the “Indian El Niño, a weather pattern discovered only in 1999. The strongest IOD to strike east Africa in 61 years happened in 2019. So when the rains arrived in 2020 in South Sudan, the water from the previous year had not yet receded, resulting in more devastating floods. This year’s rainfall could further worsen the situation, making the resultant hunger catastrophic.
“People will die of hunger. Everyone in Old Fangak is lacking food and lost what they cultivated. Hunger is the one that will kill people,” says Peter Kak, a fisherman and grandfather of five who lives on a grass island with his son Samuel. The two men stayed behind after sending the rest of the family to higher ground. Here, they fish every day.
“Flooding, conflict, Covid-19 and poverty make the situation here dire,” says Sulaiman Sesay, of Action Against Hunger, one of the few aid organisations active in this area of South Sudan. “The world needs to know that people are suffering in this way.”
The socioeconomic measures adopted in response to the pandemic have affected already critical hunger situations in vulnerable places such as South Sudan. A joint report by the World Food Programme and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that threatening global hunger levels seem to be reaching new highs.
In Old Fangak people grew sorghum, a cereal that is easy to cultivate. Now they can eat only water lilies and fish. But not everyone has fishing nets and for those who do the catches are rarely enough to satisfy the appetite.
“There’s not enough sorghum, so we have to resort to the water lily,” explains Samuel Gai. The flowers have to be collected in great numbers to grind and make a small amount of cereal.
Despite the severity of the floods, the people of Old Fangak refuse to give up. In the face of rising waters, hunger and isolation from the rest of the country, the community shows extraordinary resilience.
“We cooperate,” says Joseph Martin, a villager helping to repair the constantly collapsing airstrip dyke. “The women take the water out with buckets and we put the mud on the dykes to prevent water leaking in. They do their part and we do our part.
“When there is work, men and women work together and they cooperate. Some of the people come and work even without us asking them … this is how we do it, if there is work to save the town, we work together,.”
Moving water by the bucketload all day takes a huge toll on hungry people. “Because of this water, I’ve lost weight. We are doing this alone, all day and night throwing water over the dyke. Nobody comes to help us. We are all exhausted,” says Nyayen Chuol, who works on the dyke with her elderly mother.
Where dykes have already been breached many people move on to neighbours’ homes and start again, helping to keep other dykes strong.
“I’m worried all the time. At night I’m trying to stay awake with a fire so I can burn a bit of grass and go check if the dyke is leaking or about to break. Every night. I’m so worried I can’t even sleep thinking that if I fall asleep the dyke could break and I can drown,” says Nyayang Kich, who had to abandon her flooded home for the higher ground of her neighbour.
The water sitting stagnant is compromising health too, leading to a spike in malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
“The climate has changed from the years when I was young because we have never experienced floods like this before. What we are experiencing now is horrible. We are suffering from hunger and we didn’t before. The climate has changed. For old people it’s horrible. It’s hard moving in this water; we don’t know where to sleep or what to eat. We are in God’s hands,” says 83-year-old Mary Nyamat.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken affirmed his country’s support to conduct additional investigations into the origins of the Covid-19 after meeting with the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on Wednesday, Reuters reported. “He stressed the need for the next phase to be timely, evidence-based, transparent, expert-led, and free from interference,” a US state department spokesperson said in a statement.
The 78-year-old American president is known to be prone to verbal gaffes and slips of the tongue, for which he is usually criticized or mocked by some people on social media.
US President Joe Biden appeared to confuse former US President Barack Obama for another former US president, Donald Trump, in a Wednesday speech, but swiftly corrected himself and suggested that the mistake was a “Freudian slip”.
“Back in 2009, during the so-called Great Recession, the president asked me to be in charge of managing that piece, then-President Trump,” Biden said while addressing the public in Pennsylvania. “Excuse me, Freudian slip, that was the last president. He caused the…anyway, President Obama, when I was vice-president.”
Others argued that the 46th president does not know what a Freudian slip really is.
Biden was in Pennsylvania on Wednesday speaking at a Mack Truck assembly plant in Lehigh Valley, promoting his administration’s new measures to encourage US citizens and companies to “buy American”. Particularly, he announced plans to modify the 1933 Buy American Act that requires federal firms and agencies to purchase goods that have at least 55% US-made components.
Under the Biden plan, the threshold will be increased to 65% by 2024 and to 75% by 2029.
During the 11-day war between Israel and Palestinian militants in May 2021, Israeli airstrikes destroyed five multi-storey towers in the heart of Gaza City. The images of buildings crumbling to the ground flashed across TV channels around the world as Gaza faced the most intense Israeli offensive since 2014. At least 256 Palestinians were killed, including 66 children, and 13 in Israel, including two children. Israel claimed it was destroying the military capabilities of Hamas, who had fired rockets at Israel after weeks of tension in Jerusalem over the planned displacement of Palestinian residents and police raids on al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan.
Each time Israel said it was targeting Hamas and that it had warned the residents first. But what is it like to have only a few minutes to evacuate before watching your life collapse into rubble?
In conjunction with the civilian harm monitoring organisation Airwars, the Guardian spoke with dozens of residents and gathered footage and photos to piece together the story of one building, al-Jalaa tower, demolished by an Israeli airstrike on 15 May 2021. These are the stories from inside the tower, of the Mahdi clan, who owned and lived in the building, the Jarousha family and the Hussein family.
Israeli airstrikes in Gaza hit a 12-storey building in the early hours of 12 May 2021. Clockwise from top left: Israeli airstrikes in Gaza hit a 12-storey building in the early hours of 12 May 2021; a 13-storey residential block collapses in the Gaza Strip on 11 May 2021; an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City, 14 May 2021; smoke rises following an Israeli strike on al-Shorouq tower in Gaza City, 12 May 2021.
The story of al-Jalaa tower
The upscale Rimal area of Gaza City and its multi-storey towers had suffered since the bombing began. Though al-Jalaa was thought to be safe, night-long bombing had terrified its residents, who struggled to sleep. Fearing the impact of blasts, families had been sleeping in hallways away from the windows.
Children from al-Jalaa tower get ready to sleep in the hallway of the building for safety. Photo: Issam Mahdi
Al-Jalaa tower was built in 1994 as part of a property boom sparked by the landmark Oslo peace agreements between the Palestinians and Israelis.
The first five floors were offices, with floors six to 10 inhabited by families. On floor 11, the top floor, were the Gaza offices of the Associated Press and Al Jazeera, two of the world’s largest media companies. The ground floor had two levels of shops and beneath it was a car park.
Many of the residents came from the Mahdi family, including the building’s owner Jawad and his son Mohammed.
After each marriage in the Mahdi clan the new family settled into the tower. Jawad, 68, had traded in Israel before 2007 when the Jewish state blockaded Gaza after the Islamist group Hamas seized control of the territory. Since then he has run his clothes company in Gaza.
The whole family had huddled together into a few apartments on the sixth floor for safety, but were about to be scattered as they rushed to evacuate.
As Jawad searches through the rubble he finds a single folder. It contains pictures of his wedding day.
Jawad Mahdi with a photograph of his wedding day, found amid the rubble of al-Jalaa tower. Photo: Mohammed Mahdi
Mohannad and Suzanne’s cats were never found. “I still don’t know their fate until today,” Mohannad says. “Every day from the moment it was destroyed I was going to the building listening for any sound.”
Suzanne says their lives will never be the same. “Everything you love is gone – it doesn’t matter about the cupboards and beds and things. There are things my kids had when they were babies, clothes that I had from when I was a child – these were memories. There was a box with all the things from my father, god rest his soul, his glasses and mobile and pictures. Where am I going to get things like that again?
“We have become people without memories or mementoes. What is a person without those? If you have no memories you feel like you never lived.”
Walid Hussein, the engineer who had returned with his family from years living in the US, has become like a ghost. He has not a single document to prove who he is. Sometimes he thinks about going back to the US for his children, but he has his elderly mother in Gaza to support. He doesn’t want to have to make a choice. He shares his hopes for a peaceful future in Gaza:
“This is all we are asking for, to live a peaceful life. Very peaceful life, it means security, it means no harm to anybody, it means don’t touch my kids – not because you have this technology and this kind of weapon you bomb all of us from the air.”
Joe Dyke heads the investigation team at the civilian harm monitoring organisation Airwars Anas Baba is a freelance reporter and photographer based in Gaza