A portrait of turmoil in South Sudan, from behind the lens

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JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first: The world’s newest country, South Sudan, established in 2011, again stands on the brink of civil war. A peace deal signed last year between rival governing factions is in tatters. More than one-sixth of the country’s 12 million citizens have been displaced, and the humanitarian crisis there is worsening by the day.

John Yang has the story.

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JOHN YANG: For that view, we turn to photographer Sebastian Rich, who has covered conflict zones for more than four decades. He has been to South Sudan many times. He is there now on assignment for UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency.

He joins us now via Skype from Juba, the capital.

Sebastian, thanks for joining thus evening.

First of all, tell us how it feels now, what the situation is like on the ground now.

SEBASTIAN RICH, Photojournalist: Well, the situation is a little more tense than it was, obviously, before the recent fighting.

The recent fighting has put the people, the ordinary people in the street. They’re much more tense than they were. There’s not so many friendly faces. If you walk in the streets of Juba now, you’re not greeted the same way you were a couple of months ago or even a year ago, when I came last year.

JOHN YANG: And how is this affecting the children that you’re covering, that you’re there watching, looking at behalf on UNICEF, particularly the issues of malnutrition?

SEBASTIAN RICH: Well, it’s affecting the children very badly.

And there’s 250,000, a quarter-of-a-million children suffering from severe acute malnutrition. And that’s not including the children who just got malnutrition, the first stages of.

So, what’s happened is that the children who were actually starting to recover from severe acute malnutrition before this recent fighting, when the fighting happened, those children couldn’t come back to the hospitals to get their follow-up treatment and children that had started to get malnutrition couldn’t get to the hospitals either.

So now we have this huge increase in malnutrition and severe cases of malnutrition. And UNICEF is trying its very, very best to keep on top of this disaster.

JOHN YANG: And you spent time some today, you were telling me, with a young girl who actually has been making progress. And is there danger that this could reverse what’s happening?

SEBASTIAN RICH: Yes. It’s not all bad news. There are wonderful individual cases.

Last year, I photographed a little in a hospital in Juba. And she was on death’s door. She was a tiny little stick insect. And I stayed with her for a couple of weeks. And she got a bit better and bit better. And, today, six months later, when I came back, I photographed her and filmed her with her family, singing and dancing to tunes on my iPhone.

And it was fantastic to see a success story for once in this mess here.

JOHN YANG: And is there danger that, with this increased tension, that some of that progress could be reversed or lost?

SEBASTIAN RICH: Yes, of course.

Children will die. I mean, I don’t see how you can sugarcoat it. If you don’t get treated for severe acute malnutrition, you will die. It’s not only malnutrition. There’s complications with malnutrition. A lot of these children have on top of that tuberculosis and malaria.

So, yes, put it very simply, they will die.

JOHN YANG: And another area that this sort of increased tension threatens are child soldiers.

We have seen reports that, perhaps in preparation for tensions, that the recruitment of child soldiers is on the increase again. You have actually been watching programs where they have been trying to take them out of those — of that situation.


Well, once again, the renewed fighting has caused more problems, because now much more children will be coerced into trying to be forced into joining armed groups.

But UNICEF, once again, has been very, very successful in taking these children who have recently been released from armed groups and getting them back into education, and some of them for the very, very first times in their lives. And this is a great success. And it’s going to be a great shame not to see this success actually, you know, flower into something very good.

JOHN YANG: You talk about these former child soldiers going into school again.

UNICEF says that half of children in South Sudan don’t go to school, which is the highest proportion, they say, in the world. What’s it like for a child? What’s a child’s life like in Juba in South Sudan?

SEBASTIAN RICH: Well, all over — yes, you’re quite right. South Sudan, there’s more children now out of school than any other country on the planet.

And what you have to remember, that the war here and the ongoing wars and troubles here have just basically stripped most infrastructure. And so school, they don’t have desks. They don’t have anything to sit on.

I photographed yesterday children sitting on metal car wheels with no tire on it to listen to their teacher, sitting on engine parts, sitting on buckets, sitting on little stoves that they take to school. And when they bring the stoves home, their mother takes the stoves and cooks them lunch on it.

It’s more, more than basic, actually. And these are dirt floors as well.

JOHN YANG: Sebastian Rich, thanks so much for not only your insights on what’s going on, on the ground in South Sudan, but also for your powerful images of what is going on.

SEBASTIAN RICH: My pleasure. Thank you very much, indeed.

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