Grief and trauma run deeply in the Thiak family – it is etched into their faces. In 2013, their village, near to Bor, was attacked and their home was burned down. Eight-year-old Leek Thiak was four when he witnessed his mother almost starving herself to death. Later she was gunned down a short distance away from him.
Grandmother Nyakat Atney Thiak doesn’t remember how old she is. She says the head of her household is her son, Gabriel Ateny Thiak, who is aged 60. He was not at home at the time of the visit. Her grandson, the eight-year-old Leek, is noticeably articulate for a child of this age and answers questions on her behalf. He is clothed in an orange tartan dress, perhaps a cast off from a sister.
For Nyakat, life has been an uphill battle – it is only the gradient of the hill that changes. She grew up in a village on the other side of the river near Mingkamen. After her mother and father died, she travelled to the other side of the river to a village on the outskirts of Bor – the furthest she has been in her life. While there, she married and for a time life seemed bearable. They scratched out a living by growing sorghum and the family fished in the Nile and sold the surplus to the market.
In 2013, their village was attacked. Nyakat whispered of the terror of the villagers. “Everyone ran from the town.” Leek’s mother shepherded them to the safety of the island on the river, where they hid. Here they almost starved and ate nothing but water lilies to survive. Realising that there was not enough food to go around, Leek’s mother sacrificed her own portions and grew weak from hunger. On the island, there was no way of finding firewood for cooking. So Leek’s mother and others waited until they could no longer hear gunshots and crept into the village under the cover of night, but they were ambushed and the attackers opened fire on them. Leek’s mother and the others were shot. Leek says he shed many tears when he found out that his mother was among the dead.
Nyakat described a life with little food to eat. They used to rely on the kindness of those in the village. Sometimes neighbours would catch fish, cook a small one and bring it to their hut. Sometimes, a neighbour would give them a little money to buy something. But right now, there is no food in the house as the neighbours are keeping the few scraps of food they have for themselves.
Leek and his grandmother say they remember the JAM team visiting in 2015, although they do not remember individuals. The visit was life changing for the family, as before they had slept under the tree, which offered no protection and now they had a sturdy home, built under that very tree.
The light of all their lives was Leek’s sister, Nyagut Ateny. She was a caregiver, helper, supporter, nurturer and ‘mother’ to the whole family. Nyagut was spurred by the need to care for and watch over them, as her mother had done and she embraced the role with all her strength. When the team last visited, she was climbing the tree under which the family sheltered. As the fruit hanging lower had already been picked, she had ventured higher and higher to the furthest branches of the tree to find wild fruit to sustain them. Nyagut would do anything to care for and protect those she loved.
Almost impossibly, the family was dealt another cruel blow when this angelic soul succumbed to illness and died recently. The family are grief-stricken. “Now there is no one cooking for us. There is no one collecting water. There is no one collecting wild fruits,” said Leek as his eyes welled with angry tears. As is so often the case in Africa, it is impossible to pinpoint the exact cause of her passing. Diarrhoeal disease from dirty water, malaria and malnutrition are among the most probable causes.
Thousands of families in this oil-rich yet war-ravaged land have a story that is just as heart-breaking. War has spread its insidious feelers throughout the nation – children are not in school, lands are not being cultivated, and the people fear for their future. And with the declaration of the famine, the grip of the humanitarian crisis is being tightened. The precious people of South Sudan need help.