Reporting from South Sudan

60 Minutes producers describe "one of the worst places on the planet" after a trip to South Sudan to report on famine and food aid

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They come in their best clothes. One man arrives in a grey suit and lavender shirt. Women wear dresses of turquoise, orange and magenta. Their headscarves are red, fuchsia, canary yellow — the colors popping against the pallid sky. It’s rainy season in South Sudan, and the prevailing color — and condition — of the landscape is mud.     

Because land has become a swamp, trucks can’t pass on the unpaved roads, so the food must be delivered by air. And though it’s the most expensive option any aid organization has, it’s now one of the only options; what South Sudan lacks in infrastructure, it makes up for in desperation.

So the people line up, waiting to heave heavy food bags on their heads and shoulders, mud streaking their legs and clothes. As correspondent Scott Pelley reports this week on 60 Minutes, this is life in the youngest nation on Earth.

South Sudanese people line up to await a food drop CBS News

“South Sudan as a conflict has been on our radar for a really long time,” says 60 Minutes producer Nicole Young in the video above. “It is one of the worst places on the planet regarding humanitarian issues, war, and people who are on the brink of starvation.”

Young and co-producer Katie Kerbstat have worked together on stories about Syria’s conflict, where they developed a strong relationship with the UN’s World Food Programme. The organization pointed them next to South Sudan.

The circumstance in South Sudan is dire; 5 million people don’t know how they’ll find their next meal, and of them, 100,000 are starving and facing death. The WFP is intervening, dropping 33 tons of food at a time from commercial cargo planes.

Each plane load can feed 1,600 people for 30 days, but in the town of Mayom, where the 60 Minutes crew filmed, 50,000 people are in need. It will take 26 more air drops. The WFP estimates they are only feeding about half of those in need each month.

“[The WFP] told us, ‘It’s in South Sudan. We’re fighting famine,’” Kerbstat says. “It’s taking people from the brink of death.”

The International Medical Corps has specially formulated milk to treat malnourished children CBS News

The people at death’s door are often children. The International Medical Corps has established a clinic in the country’s capital to treat malnourished kids.

“They are bringing children back from a very dangerous place of malnourishment, where their immune systems are so weak that even a common cold could unfortunately kill them,” Kerbstat says. Solid food can be equally deadly. Instead, the clinic has therapeutic milk specially formulated to their needs.

Chubby cheeks are a sign of bloating as a result of malnourishment CBS News

Starvation often masquerades as its opposite. Babies with plump bellies and puffy cheeks usually signify a well-fed child. But as Dr. Meroni Abraham, one of two doctors for the International Medical Corps at the displacement camp in South Sudan’s capital explains, they are also a sign of severe malnutrition.

Outside the clinic, cargo planes offer the only sign of calories. Each 110-pound bag, a cause for joy. “The women and the people also looked at this food distribution as a moment of celebration,” Kerbstat says.

Men carry packages of food that have been air dropped by the World Food Programme CBS News

And while a civil war rages on in South Sudan, making food delivery and health care precarious, those on the ground push on.

“There was a lot of hope with all of the humanitarian agencies that we had spoken with on the ground,” Young says. “I don’t think you can operate in a place like South Sudan without having some semblance of hope.”

For more information on the humanitarian effort and how to help, visit these websites:

World Food Program USA
International Medical Corps
The Enough Project

Photo of Scott Pelley courtesy of International Medical Corps/Crystal Wells
The video above was produced and edited by Will Croxton.