07/16/2014 12:55 pm ET Updated Sep 15, 2014

A Plea For Help For South Sudan


Introduction by Oxfam

Keira Knightley recently traveled with the aid and relief organization Oxfam to South Sudan, the world's newest country that is now in the grip of a humanitarian crisis. She visited Bor camp, in South Sudan's Jonglei State, where, like in similar camps, people are living in atrocious conditions and walking knee deep in mud and water. Poor sanitation has already taken many lives through the spread of disease, ever increasing with the seasonal heavy rains.

"I had no idea what to expect when I arrived in South Sudan, but what I saw and heard was worse than I could have ever imagined," Knightley said. "All of those I met were suffering a terrible trauma unbearable to comprehend. I spoke to women who have lost their husbands and children within months of one another. They are now alone trying desperately to get through each day, struggling to provide enough food and water to keep them and their remaining children alive."

Since the conflict broke out in December 2013, more than 1.5 million people have been forced to leave their homes in search of safety. Most people are fleeing with just the clothes on their backs, leaving behind possessions, crops and livestock with no means to buy food, water or other vital essentials. South Sudan is Africa's worse crisis with nearly 4 million -- a third of the country's population -- at risk of severe hunger. The United Nations has warned that if the aid effort does not increase, 50,000 children could die from malnutrition.

"The people I met are facing a relentless crisis of war, hunger and disease. I saw the amazing work Oxfam is doing day in and day out to ensure that people have safe water to drink and food to eat, but the situation is getting worse and resources are running out," said Knightley. "I met just a few of the thousands of families who are desperately trying to survive each day, but they can't do it alone. They need our help."

The following are excerpts from Knightley's diary on that trip:

JUNE 3, 2014

BOR, SOUTH SUDAN -- Rebecca is 25. Before the conflict started she lived in Bor with her husband and five children. The youngest is just over one. She worked in the market. When fighting broke out in December, she ran with all of her children and her husband toward the camp. Every step she took, she was terrified of losing one of them. Nothing was ready for the sheer numbers of people who fled to the camp, and, inevitably, epidemics broke out. All of Rebecca's children became ill -- so far they've all survived. Others weren't so lucky.

Just outside the camp, there is a grave of the 90 children who have died so far from various diseases. Next to them is the grave of 46 people, mostly men, who were killed when Bor camp came under attack in April in a calculated assault on the UN base. Two rows of barbed wire fences were broken between UN patrols, and the youths killed whoever they could find. Rebecca's husband was one of the dead. She and her children managed to run to safety.

You hear these stories all the time in Africa. The brutality, the never-ending death and starvation. It's easy to become immune. And then you meet someone like Rebecca. So quiet, so poised. She says she misses the way her husband made her laugh; she misses the way he held her. The way he made her feel like a woman and you think -- you're just like me. That's what I'd say about my husband. She says she can't think about him now because her heart will break, and she has to keep going for her children.

The baby squirming on her lap, one minute laughing, the next screaming, wanting constant attention is just like my nine month old nephew, except this one's surrounded by uncertainty, threatened by disease.

JUNE 4, 2014

BOR, SOUTH SUDAN -- It's raining. We got up at 5:45 am to catch the morning light. The rain was sheeting down. The camp felt deserted. No one was up yet, or they were inside sheltering. The rain made the sewage smell disgusting. The tents glistened in the wet and with each step we took the ground got worse and worse. Thick, sticky mud clinging to everything. The rain destroyed the mud walls of the camp; rivers of water carried them away. I could see vultures sitting in the trees. The effect of the rain is devastating. Two more latrines collapsed. Sewage mixed with the rain water. We were all soaked in seconds. The mosquitos descended.

At 7, someone started playing really loud music -- maybe he was the alarm call. My head was aching from the malaria pills. At 8:30, we went to the clinic to try and see some kids getting treated for malaria but the rain had kept them away. The mud was everywhere. A woman had her tent flap open and inside she was brewing tea over a fire for five guys. They were young. The woman said I should marry one of them. I said I was already married, but she didn't seem to think that mattered. They're trying to get solar powered lights put up in the wash areas so women will be safer at night. But you can feel the tension. People waiting with nothing to do and nowhere to go. They're as much prisoners in a siege as people seeking protection. They live too close together in squalid conditions and the rage and fear keeps building. It's the women who bear the brunt of it.

By 10, the clinic had filled up. Mothers sat on mats with babies in their arms. The mud threatened to flood in. We met an 18-year-old girl and her one-month-old baby. She was pregnant when she ran for safety here. She doesn't know where her husband or the rest of her family are. She gave birth alone. The baby became ill four days ago. She couldn't stop him from crying. His temperature soared. She said there was no way to keep her tent clean. The mud and the flies take over. The mosquitos had made the baby sick. As we were speaking to her, a man was rushed into the ward and thrown onto a bed at the back. He was having some kind of fit. Another man was brought in on a stretcher. Some sort of stomach illness. There's always a risk of cholera.

There was a young girl in an immaculate fur coat. She was probably 12. Standing with her bare feet in raw sewage. A man in a pristine Sainsbury's uniform sat nearby. It's hot and sticky now.

JUNE 5, 2014

JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN -- I'm sitting in my room in the hotel in Juba. It's raining again. Torrents of water are pouring off the roof and the noise is deafening. Loud rolls of thunder keep coming. I can barely see out of the window the rain's so hard. Breakfast at 8:45. We got in a jeep and headed across Juba. There are proper roads in Juba with proper buildings and tons of motorbikes. They crisscross the road everywhere. On one of the roundabouts, there's a big 'peace' sign -- a poster calling for unification and forgiveness. Just next to it sits a truck full of guys in army uniforms. Apparently you can buy a Kalashnikov in the market for ten dollars. You can get a gun easily, but you can't get clean water.

An Oxfam worker called Lam is with us today to show us Oxfam's cholera programs in action. He's incredible. He started working for Oxfam two weeks before the conflict began.

What is frustrating here is that a lot of the problems had been solved. They had built roads, they had provided clean water, they had rubbish trucks to sort out sanitation. They were in the 'development' stage. After years of Civil War, they had their new country, their own country, and they had started to build it. And then, one December day, their elected politicians decided to turn on each other and began a chain reaction that led to friends from different tribes fighting, to tribal warfare. No more development, no more rubbish trucks, no more clean water.

Oxfam can’t solve ancient tribal conflict, but they can help the hundreds of thousands of innocent people caught in the middle. They can help the children. The children, and people like Lam, are where the hope lies.

Learn how you can make a difference for women and children in South Sudan on Oxfam's website.