Smugglers become Lifeline for the Starving in South Sudan

Sadiq Mohammed climbs into the cab of a truck that looks more like a nightclub than a smuggler’s perch. Red and yellow tassels dangle from the ceiling, while tapestry drapes much of the windshield. He switches on the electric fan above his head and nestles into the front seat, which he’s fitted with a more comfortable lawn chair.

The Sudanese trader-turned-smuggler says life is good. With both civil war and famine raging in South Sudan, “I have more business now than before.”

After crossing from Sudan into this small South Sudan town, the 38-year-old father of two unpacks his shipment of food before trying to relax from his three-day journey. What began as a respectable, legal food transport job in 2009 has turned into a risky profession.

After South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011, parts of the border between the two countries were sealed. Truckers like Mohammed had to decide on changing jobs or continuing to work illegally.

“I have no choice but to keep on smuggling,” he says.

For thousands of these Sudanese smugglers, the crisis is proving quite profitable.

As South Sudan enters its fourth year of civil war, over half of the country’s population has become reliant on humanitarian aid. Here in the state of Northern Bahr el Ghazal, thousands face starvation. With drought, soaring inflation and severe access challenges, hundreds of communities in this corner of the country now depend on their northern neighbor to feed their families.

“We’re lacking 200,000 metric tons of food,” says James Maywien Aror, the relief and rehabilitation commissioner for Aweil East in Northern Bahr el Ghazal. “If the smugglers can make it into South Sudan we’re happy to have them.”

Once they cross the border, Aror says, there are no issues. For the smugglers, however, it takes stealth and vigilance to make it safely through Sudan.

“I take back streets until I cross over,” Mohammed says. In order to evade the Sudanese army, he drives overnight, navigating roads through thick forest and relying on a vast network of villagers to guide him. If he gets caught he’ll have to pay a 15,000-Sudanese-pound ($2,200) fine. If he refuses to pay, his goods will be confiscated, leaving him in severe debt.

“Whatever happens in Sudan is the responsibility of that smuggler,” says Deng Makol, a South Sudanese trader who works with Mohammed. “If the shipment is seized it’s that person’s responsibility to resupply it.”

Mohammed says it’s worth the risk. For every successful journey he makes 7,000 Sudanese pounds, about nine times what most Sudanese make in a month. He has just completed his fifth trip since January and plans to make more. He says the demand is only increasing.

“Roughly 85 percent of my food comes from Sudan,” Makol says. Sliding open the door of his small shop in the center of town, he reveals bags of sorghum and maize stacked to the ceiling.

“Orders will go in no time,” he says. “People are hungrier than ever this year.”

The problem is the soaring inflation. “Everyone’s talking about prices going up and they have no money,” he says.

A World Food Program report released in March put South Sudan’s inflation rate at 372 percent. By comparison, Kenya’s is 6.3 percent, according to the World Bank.

South Sudan’s weakened currency has led to higher prices of imported food. Since 2014, prices in the markets have shot up. Many people can no longer afford basic nutrients.

“I used to make porridge and tea for my children every morning,” Nyanut Pantheer says. “Now we’re lucky if I can buy them bread, and most days they leave the house hungry.”

The 33-year-old teashop owner says three years ago she used to buy seven-and-a-half pounds (3.4 kilograms) of sorghum for 15 South Sudanese pounds (about 10 cents). Today she pays 18 times that for the same amount.

Pantheer says she’s worried that prices will soon increase with the onset of the rainy season.

“When it rains, there’s more demand and less supply,” Makol says. “It’s harder for smugglers to get food in.” He expects to raise the price of a 198-pound bag of sorghum from the current 7,800 South Sudanese pounds to 10,000.

In an attempt to ease access challenges and provide food to South Sudan’s most vulnerable people, Sudan recently opened a second corridor for humanitarian aid into Bentiu city in South Sudan’s Northern Liech state. A statement by the United States, Britain and Norway welcomed the move and encouraged the opening of other routes between Sudan and South Sudan.

The new humanitarian corridor doesn’t affect the thousands of starving people in Northern Bahr el Ghazal. They’ll have to continue relying on smugglers.

Even with their near-monopoly on trade, smugglers like Mohammed are keen to see an easier cross-border flow of goods.

“Both nations will benefit from a trade agreement,” Mohammed says, but he admits it doesn’t look likely. For now, he’ll have to continue driving in the dark.

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