Things are spiraling downward in South Sudan, one of four nations where, according to the U.N., the greatest humanitarian crisis since 1945 is unfolding.
And in the case of South Sudan, it's not drought or climate change that's causing the catastrophe. It's civil war.
Last month the U.N. declared a famine in two parts of the country and warned that nearly half the population is in urgent need of food assistance.
Soon after this declaration, the American relief agency Samaritan's Purse was forced to pull most of its staff out of one of the famine-stricken zones because of fighting in the area. A skeleton crew of 7 local staff members remained behind. Then on Sunday, armed gunmen abducted those workers.
A spokesman for the South Sudanese military said the aid workers were being held for ransom by rebel fighters demanding food aid in exchange for their release.
On Tuesday, Samaritan's Purse confirmed that their employees had been let go.
"At the very moment that we are talking they are in a helicopter on their way to Juba. They've been released," says Ken Isaacs, vice president of programs for Samaritan's Purse, who spoke to NPR by phone earlier today from the aid agency's headquarters in North Carolina.
"I think they're OK. I don't know if they were manhandled. We are under the assumption that they're safe, OK and they're headed out." Negotiations involving local military leaders on both sides of the conflict, he says, brought about their release. He adds that no ransom was paid.
The abduction, however, has forced the aid group to halt operations in the epicenter of one of the worst famines in the world.
"This incident clearly illustrates the complexities and dangers of working in South Sudan," Isaacs says. At the same time that people are starving, fighting has turned parts of the country into no-go zones for relief agencies.
This same pattern is playing out in three other countries in the world right now, prompting the U.N. to declare that it's facing the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.
Violence in Yemen, according to the U.N., has left 18 million people — nearly two-thirds of the country — in need of humanitarian aid. Drought combined with chaos and extremist militants in Somalia are leaving millions hungry there. And in West Africa, Boko Haram fighters have terrorized people across large swaths of Northern Nigeria, driven farmers from their land and left a massive food shortage in their wake.
Back in South Sudan, another area where famine has been declared is Leer County, just south of where the Samaritan's Purse team was working.
Nellie Kingston, emergency coordinator for Concern Worldwide in South Sudan, visited Leer last week. Reached by phone in the capital Juba, Kingston says Leer is a wasteland.
"I saw no planting in Leer County. Villages are deserted. People are hiding in swamps to avoid the fighting," Kingston says. Most of the fit, able-bodied residents have fled to camps set up by the United Nations, she says. Those left behind have almost nothing to eat.
"The people I met are living on what they can forage in the swamps where they live. Luckily those people have access to fish [from the swampy water], which adds some protein to their diet."
Kingston says this is a manmade food crisis. Fighters from both the government and the rebel side in the war have been accused of robbing, raping and killing civilians. Gunmen have torched crops and chased farmers from their fields.
Logistically, she says, it's very hard for aid agencies to deliver food rations to people hiding in remote swamps. And when the rains hit later this spring, she says, most of the dirt roads will turn to rivers of mud, making the delivery of aid across much of Leer County nearly impossible. "In the next rainy season, those people are locked into where they are," she says.
The World Food Programme has been trying to reach some of them by dropping bags of grain from airplanes into some parts of the country. Last year the WFP distributed a record 265,000 metric tons of food supplies by air and truck across South Sudan, the most since South Sudan gained independence in 2011.
Ken Isaacs of Samaritan's Purse says that just when it looked as if things couldn't get any worse in South Sudan, the country has become even more chaotic.
"If something isn't done to bring a stable government to the area soon," he says, "we are going to see much more loss of life and a lot more bloodshed."
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The United Nations says the world is facing the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. More than 20 million people are facing starvation or severe food shortages. They're spread over four countries - Yemen, Somalia South Sudan and Nigeria. To tell us what's going on there, we're joined by NPR's Jason Beaubien. Jason, what is happening in those four countries?
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Well, basically what's happening is conflict. You've got conflict in all four of these countries that are driving people off their land, making it unable for them to eat, unable to get access to food the way they normally would. The worst is Yemen. War-torn Yemen is considered to have about two-thirds of its people in need of humanitarian aid right now, the U.N. says - South Sudan a similar situation where fighting has driven people out of their homes, off their farms, and it continues to spiral downwards.
Northern Nigeria, you've got Boko Haram militants there who have taken over large swaths of the northern part of the country. And then Somalia, you've got a drought hitting there on top of what has already been practically a failed state. So it's different factors in each country, and that's part of what's making this an incredibly complex food crisis to attack.
SIEGEL: Well, the U.N. has put out this warning. What is the U.N. doing, or what does the U.N. want to do about it?
BEAUBIEN: Well, the U.N. is really struggling to raise the funding it says it needs for these relief operations. It says it needs about $4.4 billion. It's only raised a tiny sliver of that at this point in time. It's also getting in there and trying to put in relief where it can. It's using planes to airdrop food in. It's also documenting deaths from starvation that are occurring. But they're very concerned that they don't have the resources right now that they need to actually tackle this problem.
SIEGEL: These are incredibly difficult places for aid workers to operate. As you've said, these are conflict zones. And in northern Nigeria, Yemen, many of these places are controlled by armed militants. How are relief organizations trying to get to people in need in such places?
BEAUBIEN: They're basically trying any way they can, but they are running into incredible difficulties. Samaritan's Purse - it's an American Christian aid group - they were working in a part of South Sudan that has been declared a famine. Two weeks ago, they had to pull all of their staff out of this one village where they were doing food relief operations. They left a few people behind to sort of keep things going on a shoestring.
Well, this week, those staff all got held hostage by armed gunmen. I talked with Ken Isaacs. He's from Samaritan's Purse headquarters in North Carolina, and he told me that there's this vicious cycle of security problems making the food situation worse.
KEN ISAACS: We have been out for two weeks now. We can't fly and drop food. And so the people in that area are now getting more desperate. And on top of that, fighting is happening around them. It's just a bad recipe all the way around.
BEAUBIEN: And that bad recipe is sort of playing out in all of these different four countries that the U.N. says face starvation if something doesn't change in the months to come.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Jason Beaubien. Jason, thanks.
BEAUBIEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.