Bor and Pibor, South Sudan: A jeep carrying rifle-toting South Sudanese soldiers bumps along a dirt road. United Nations Blue Helmets guard the one vital dusty airstrip. Birds of prey circle overhead as aid workers hand out monthly rations to desperate women queuing in the stifling heat. A girl, aged about two, sits forlorn in the dirt, wearing a torn pink T-shirt emblazoned with the incongruous phrase: “Born to Shop”.
It’s obviously a hand-me-down from the West, a shirt meant for another child, one with a brighter future than the girl living in this camp for displaced people in the world’s newest nation, which has been riven by conflict throughout its 11 brief years of existence.
This month the UN envoy for South Sudan warned that the chronically unstable country faced “catastrophe” ahead of elections, while the UN Commission for Human Rights accused the government in Juba of committing war crimes.
Separately, the UN released a damning report into widespread sexual violence against woman and girls, saying they lived “a hellish existence” in South Sudan. The refugee crisis in the country remains the largest on the African continent, with two million refugees, and yet is one of the least well-funded at only 21% according to the UN High Commission for Refugees.
You’d be forgiven for not knowing much about any of this. Such news barely makes the headlines.
As a journalist based in Africa but working for the international press for years, I know all too well what a hard sell stories from the continent are.
I thought it was big news when I worked through the night a few years ago covering a military coup in West Africa. The bosses at the international news agency I used to work for disagreed. It had hardly been picked up by any papers in Europe, they told me, stories from Africa were some of the worst-performing internationally and the company was pivoting to focus on European and economic news.
It’s easy to blame editors for not taking pitches from Africa; media is not just a public service, it’s an industry and needs to make money. If there was more interest in Africa from citizens in the West, then there would be demand. But people expect such stories out of Africa and they have compassion fatigue.
That’s why scenes of middle-class blonde refugee children fleeing Ukraine have received so much media attention since the start of the Russian invasion. They are apparently more relatable or more shocking to Westerners than the little girl in the camp in South Sudan — or the victims of Islamist militants I met on a recent trip to insurgency-stricken northern Mozambique, or the former child soldiers I interviewed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
We should follow and care deeply about the atrocities taking place in Ukraine. It’s understandable there is so much media attention, especially if other superpowers get involved.
But there’s no denying much of the media coverage and Twitter commentary has been blatantly racist.
“The unthinkable has happened … This is not a developing, third world nation; this is Europe!” one journalist from Britain’s ITV said in her piece to camera. Another, from Al Jazeera, said: “Looking at them [referring to refugees], the way they are dressed, these are prosperous middle-class people … These are not people trying to get away from areas in North Africa. They look like a European family that you would live next door to.” Many others have made similar “man bites dog” remarks.
Some four million people have fled Ukraine and the UN said this week the civilian death toll had reached 1 417 as of 2 April, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. In South Sudan and many other African conflict zones entire cities may not be being flattened by bombs as Mariupol has been, but the violence is insidious, drawn-out and shows no sign of abating.
Take Somalia, where there are near-constant suicide bombings by Al-Shabaab, 2.6 million people displaced, and where the World Food Programme warns the number of acutely food insecure people could increase to 4.6 million by May. In Ethiopia’s Tigray region, up to 500 000 people are believed to have died of war and famine in the past 16 months, rape has been widely used as a weapon and some nine million people are facing food shortages. In the Sahel region, some 1.7 million people in Burkina Faso have been displaced, and in Mali jihadist violence has spiked and aid groups say 7.5 million people are in dire need.
I visited two African conflict areas recently, mainly spending my time in sprawling camps for displaced people that seldom make it onto the international nightly news.
In Cabo Delgado, Mozambique, where more than 3 700 people have been killed in since the insurgency began in 2017 and some 800 000 more have been displaced, I heard horror stories of beheadings and kidnapped children from those who had fled attacks. One older woman told me her sister’s decapitated head had been placed outside her front door with the tongue cut out.
In South Sudan, despite a peace accord signed several years ago, displaced people still live in thousands of makeshift shelters assembled from old food sacks bearing the logos of the various UN agencies that donated them. As in Mozambique, they are reliant on food aid, and tribal fighting regularly shatters the nominal peace. Cattle-raiding is one of the pervasive causes of violence here, with bandits regularly stealing children as well as cows and often murdering dozens of villagers in the raids.
Now there is increasing concern that aid money could be diverted away from regions like these in favour of Ukraine, with UN secretary general Antonio Guterres saying only a few weeks ago: “We are seeing clear evidence of this war draining resources and attention from other trouble spots in desperate need.”
Isak Pretorius, chief executive for JAM International, an African humanitarian aid and development organisation, agrees this is something that needs to be prevented.
“Our hearts go out to the people of Ukraine and we are responding with assistance programmes in Ukraine and the neighbouring countries, as well as trying to secure safe passage and repatriation of Africans stuck in Ukraine. I am, however, very concerned about the impact of the war on Africa,” he said.
“There is massive displacement of people in Mozambique, Ethiopia, South Sudan, DR Congo and many other countries as a result of ongoing human conflict or natural disasters. These are crises that are already underfunded and if we see further funding cuts, I fear we will be placed in the extremely compromised position of having to sideline those in need … We must respond to the needs of Ukraine, but please not at the expense of Africa.”
I think of the psychologically-scarred former child soldier I interviewed, of the mother and her malnourished baby I met at a clinic, of the man whose teenage daughter was taken by militants and never heard from again, of the little girl in the “Born to Shop” T-shirt, and I hope that while the media runs the Ukraine story 24/7, they also have space to report on the oft-forgotten victims of conflict in Africa.
This article was first published in the Mail&Guardian.