Wilton native helps in struggling South Sudan

Lauren Hartnett photos
South Sudan, a fledgling country ravaged by famine and conflict, may seem worlds away from Wilton. But there is a connection between the two in the form of Lauren Hartnett, a 2002 Wilton High School graduate.

On March 25, the Wilton native and Oxfam America humanitarian press officer returned from South Sudan, where she spent nearly a month providing colleagues and reporters with information on the humanitarian situation in the northeastern African country.

During her time there, Hartnett collected updates from program staff who were “distributing food and helping people produce their own food and access food in local markets, building and repairing boreholes [to find water], providing sanitation services, and more” in South Sudan. She then relayed that information to Oxfam colleagues around the world, as well as media outlets looking to cover the crisis.

Hartnett — who has a master’s degree in global affairs from New York University —  lives in Boston. In 2014, she became a humanitarian press officer for the United States affiliate of Oxfam, an international confederation of charitable organizations focused on the alleviation of global poverty.

“South Sudan became a nation only a few years ago, and a political rivalry has spilled into full-fledged conflict engulfing much of the country,” said Hartnett. “It has taken lives, forced millions to flee their homes and has caused this famine and hunger crisis.”

South Sudan

South Sudan — officially known as the Republic of South Sudan — is the world’s youngest nation. In 2011, it voted to break away from Sudan after a decades-long civil war with Sudan’s north. Independence, however, didn’t bring peace.

In December 2013, political tensions over leadership of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement ignited the South Sudanese Civil War. Fighting broke out in the South Sudanese capital of Juba and quickly spread to many parts of the country.

The ongoing conflict has caused more than three million people to flee their homes and left 7.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. To make matters worse, in February famine was declared in two areas of South Sudan.

Oxfam work

With parts of South Sudan pushed into deadly famine, millions of people displaced, 100,000 people facing starvation, and millions more in need of immediate assistance, Oxfam has been working to provide vital assistance to people across the war-torn nation, such as through the distribution of food and provision of clean water and sanitation services.

Although South Sudan has “ample natural resources” and “its people are able and want to get back to being self-sufficient,” said Hartnett, the nation’s ongoing conflict makes it “largely impossible.”

“The humanitarian community has responded, but we need more support to save lives now — especially as the rainy season approaches and it becomes even more difficult to reach the most vulnerable and remote communities,” said Hartnett.

“We also need both sides of the conflict to guarantee safe access so humanitarians can provide aid.”

Although famine has so far been avoided in areas where Oxfam has been able to work, Hartnett said, there is “a real threat” that the number of people living in famine will grow “unless there is immediate and generous aid from the international community.”

“One other key piece to understand is how the people of South Sudan have been and continue to try to fend for themselves and each other,” said Hartnett.

“People with almost nothing open their homes and share everything with strangers who have fled conflict and arrive in their communities — but their resources and ability to manage on their own are being exhausted, and they now need us to step in to support them and show that we see their suffering and value their rights and their lives.”

Towards the end of her time in South Sudan, Hartnett said, she was able to travel north to Nyal, “which is close to where famine has been declared.”

“There, I was able to follow Oxfam staff while they distributed food to families who had recently arrived in the area in search of food, clean water, safety and more,” she said.

“Many had lost everything and had spent days in the swamps after their homes and possessions were destroyed in Mayendit.”

Hartnett said Mayendit is “one of the most active sites of conflict and where famine has been declared.”

“People I spoke to had their houses, belongings and cattle burned or stolen, family members were killed or have been separated,” she said. “Many had to literally run for their lives with only what they could carry.”

The conflict continues there and virtually all aid groups have had to evacuate, said Hartnett. Because of this, people are fleeing to places like Nyal to seek safety and support from the community and humanitarian organizations.

Hartnett said she was able to speak with “many of the people who had just experienced this, as well as the community in Nyal, who are welcoming these newcomers with overwhelming generosity and kindness.”

While in South Sudan, Hartnett stayed in Oxfam’s staff lodging in Juba and on an Oxfam base in Nyal.

“I was really blown away by our staff’s dedication,” said Hartnett. “They work literally around the clock, with few comforts, and do it all with unending commitment and energy.”

While it was her first time in South Sudan, Hartnett said, she hopes it will not be her last.

“The Oxfam staff there and the people of South Sudan were incredible and made it a truly rewarding experience,” she said. “There is actually a slim chance I will be there again in a few weeks for a few days.”

Hartnett said the hardest part about her South Sudan trip was “speaking to people who have been forced to leave their homes, their families, neighbors, land, identities of being able to provide for themselves — and knowing that they have a long road ahead of them before this conflict ends and they can return home and to a safe and normal life.”

“I spoke with elderly people who had trouble walking because they were so frail and malnourished and heard that they had just had to run for their lives, leaving everything,” said Hartnett.

“They had been carried through the swamps to Nyal on plastic tarps by younger family members because they were too weak to walk. They told me that others they left behind in the swamp were in much worse condition.”

Hartnett said meeting the people in Nyal and “knowing that [she] was a part of something that was making a difference in their lives” was the best part about her trip.

“People went out of their way to greet me warmly, thanking me for visiting them, apologizing for how hot the sun was there, asking if I needed anything, and expressing their gratitude for Oxfam’s support,” she said.

“At one point, I was able to visit a family who had received the beans, oil and salt we distributed that day and they were cooking them for dinner. The little girls in the family had their own little fire and pot of beans and were ‘playing kitchen.’ It was so adorable and a reminder of how much we all have in common.”

How to help

Hartnett said there are several ways to help the South Sudanese people.

One is by contacting members of Congress and asking them to “fully fund the International Affairs budget that allows the U.S. to respond to famine and hunger emergencies,” she said. Information on this is available at oxfamamerica.org/famineaction.

Another is by donating to Oxfam to help support and expand its life-saving programs. Information: oxfamamerica.org/famine-threat, 800-776-9326.

Hartnett said people can also bring their families, friends, colleagues and neighbors together to host a benefit, for which Oxfam can provide support in the form of event ideas, fund-raising materials, and other resources. Contact: actfast@oxfamamerica.org.

To learn more about Oxfam, visit oxfam.org.