Photos of a starving girl who thawed a weary heart

JUBA, South Sudan -- For the last 40 years I have traveled to just about every corner of the world to document war and natural disaster. On this constant diet of distress, one can become, I am afraid, just a little cynical. It is hard not to be left with a creeping despair that all is lost forever.

But every now and then one beautiful tiny teardrop of hope fails to fall into that dark sea of despair.

Four-year-old Nyajima-Guet was the small ray of hope that managed to elicit a smile and, admittedly, a somewhat moist eye from this grumpy old photographer. She left me with a slightly less cynical vision of this seemingly broken world.

Nyajima was admitted at the end of October to the International Medical Corps hospital in a refugee camp in Juba, South Sudan, with severe acute malnutrition, emaciated and close to death.

Her body was quite simply failing and falling apart. On admission she weighed just 20 pounds; given her height and age she should have weighed closer to 50 pounds. If that wasn't enough, Nyajima was also suffering from tuberculosis.

I first met and photographed Nyajima as she lay on a hospital bed almost lifeless, with glazed, flat, unresponsive eyes.

Here skin was dehydrated. It had the appearance of autumn leaves that had fallen from a tree long ago. Her breathing was laboured and every small movement caused her a great deal of pain and discomfort.

Nyajima was wearing a pretty little golden patterned dress, but it couldn't hide her long, emaciated arms and legs. She looked like a tiny bag of broken twigs.

As a father I could not help but feel terrible anger and frustration that a child in 2015 could be in such a terrible condition.

I returned about every other day to Nyajima's bedside in the hope that I would be documenting the recovery of a brave little girl. I was not disappointed.

With the intervention of doctors who gave her drugs to combat the tuberculosis and a carefully monitored feeding program, she was making an incredible recovery, and it was absolutely wonderful to see and to photograph.

Over the course of three weeks I watched a dying girl literally come back to life with wonderful smiles and infectious giggling.

Her eyes now sparkled with health and just a glint of the inquisitive naughtiness that all healthy four-year-olds should have. By this time Nyajima was completely at ease with my camera and would demand to see the images and nod approval at the results.

On the last day that I saw her before leaving for another assignment with UNICEF in South Sudan, I sat on her bed and took huge delight in photographing one very happy young lady.

As I looked through my camera and clicked away at other subjects, I felt a warm little hand take my reading glasses from where they were perched on my shirt. With a mischievous giggly flourish she put them on and demanded to be photographed. How could I not?

The doctors of the International Medical Corps said Nyajima was an incredibly lucky little girl, and in the next few weeks they expected her to make a full recovery with absolutely no side effects from her ordeal.

My only hope is that events in South Sudan do not repeat this awful ordeal for Nyajima, or the thousands of other children facing an extreme lack of food and other necessities in this war torn country.

Sebastian Rich is a freelance photographer on assignment in South Sudan and Somalia.