BRISBANE priest Fr Ladu Yanga is turning to prayer as hundreds of thousands of people in his homeland South Sudan face death by starvation.
The United Nations has warned that could be the death toll unless relief workers gain access to needy populations and more relief funding is raised.
It estimates a further one million people are on the brink of a famine, and the number of people affected by the food shortage was expected to rise to 5.5 million by July if nothing is done to ease the severity and spread of the crisis.
The UN last month declared parts of South Sudan were in famine, which means people have already started to die of hunger.
United Nations officials have blamed the rival forces of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army loyal to President Salva Kiir and the SPLA in Opposition backing Riek Machar for the lack of food and the collapsing economy.
Fr Yanga, who is associate pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, Sunnybank, is encouraging his community to pray for the people of South Sudan.
“We encourage them to pray for peace because that’s the only thing we can do here,” he said.
“People who have their relatives over there, they worry much about them.
“Every news that comes from over there is sad news.”
Fr Yanga, who has not been in South Sudan for many years but has regular contact with family there, said “prayer is our only instrument”.
“They (the warring factions) can carry guns, but we carry prayers, so we keep praying,” he said.
Fr Yanga’s mother and his brothers and sisters live in Juba, South Sudan’s capital.
“People in South Sudan usually cultivate – they are farmers. But in this war they stop everything. They don’t cultivate,” he said.
“Most of the supplies come from neighbouring countries. So they rely on that. And with this war those supplies will not come in.
“And because they don’t come in, people suffer.”
Fr Yanga said the food that did arrive was expensive, so many of the people could not afford it.
“And that is what is happening. People are dying because there is no food,” he said.
Franciscan Father Mario Debattista, from the friars’ community at Kedron in Brisbane, is well aware of the situation in South Sudan, having ministered in Juba for about three years before returning to Brisbane late last year.
He said the situation had worsened since he left Juba last August.
“When I left, (South Sudan’s) people were really struggling – even in the cities – with paying for the basic necessities,” Fr Debattista said.
“In rural areas it was much, much worse.
“In the villages even in our parish … many of those people moved to Juba because of the insecurity or the food shortage.
“People in rural areas have been really pushed to the limits.”
Fr Debattista said the fact the South Sudan government had finally acknowledged there was a problem indicated how serious the situation was.
“Up till now they’d been denying there’s a food problem,” he said.
“It’s up to the government (to solve South Sudan’s problems).
“Increasingly, the government’s starting to listen to the Church.
“Plans for Pope Francis to go there, I hope, might make some sort of difference if he does go.”
The United Nations said the situation in South Sudan had worsened for the 3.4 million people who had been displaced and separated from their families.
Humanitarian organisations have appealed for $1.6 billion to provide life-saving assistance and protection to about 5.8 million people across South Sudan this year.
Caritas Australia has launched an Africa Emergency Appeal, saying about 20 million people were on the brink of famine across South Sudan, Kenya, Malawi, Somalia, Ethiopia, Yemen and Nigeria.
By Mark Bowling and Peter Bugden