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Story from Fr. John

John Skinnader with Agum, her mother and Daniel     As the soldiers attacked their village and destroyed their livestock and crops, in South Sudan, Maria Mabior had one last chance to save her family from starvation: the beauty of her 16 -year-old daughter, Agum.

Last year, an older man offered $1,000 for her dowry, enough to take her extended family to Leer where international aid agencies are handing out food and water to families fleeing the devastating conflict.

Agum refused. "I would rather die. It is better that I run into the bush and be eaten by lions," said the smiling bright-eyed girl in a high, soft voice. "Then we will stay and starve to death and the animals will eat all of our bones," her mother shot back. The exchange, related to Fr. John Skinnader by the teenager and her mother, is typical of the choices facing South Sudanese families after years of conflict and poor rains. Crops withered and the white bones of livestock are scattered across the Horn of Africa nation.

The disaster is part of an arc of hunger and violence threatening 20 million people as it stretches across Africa into the Middle East. It extends from the red soil of Nigeria in the west, where Boko Haram's six-year jihadis insurgency has forced 2 million people to flee their homes, to Yemen's white deserts in the east, where warring factions block aid while children starve. Between them lie Somalia's parched sands and the swamps of oil-rich South Sudan, where starving families fleeing three years of civil war survive on water-lily roots. Parts of South Sudan are already suffering famine, the first in six years.

As U.S. President Donald Trump threatens to slash aid budgets, the United Nations says the drought and conflicts in the four countries are fuelling humanity's greatest collective disaster since World War Two. "We stand at a critical point in history," Undersecretary-General for humanitarian affairs Stephen O'Brien told the Security Council in March. "We are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations." The United Nations needs $4.4 billion by July, he said. So far it has received $590 million.

Missing from the statistics are the heart-wrenching choices families make every day to survive. Sheltering under the bare branches of a thorn tree as she waited for a cup of flour, one mother who just arrived in Leer said she had been feeding her younger children while the older ones went hungry. Another had left her sick 5-year-old son by the side of the road with distant kinsmen as she led children that could still walk towards help. A third woman bid goodbye to her crippled husband and walked through the desert for a week, carrying their toddler, to the place where there was food.

Maria traded Agum’s freedom for the lives of her sisters.

"I felt so bad," she told us in the ragged dome of sticks, rags and plastic that shelters her and 14 other relatives. "I ended the dreams of my baby. But without the money from the dowry, we would all have died." Agum says . She wants to be an English teacher. She wants to finish school. She does not want to be married. "I want something different to this," she said, Weighed against Agum’s dreams were the lives of 20 nieces and nephews, the sons and daughters of her three elder sisters, all married young and all widowed or divorced. There was also her careworn older brother, her gap-toothed younger sister and her middle-aged parents.

Once the family had cows and goats and three donkeys that they hired out with carts for transport. But the animals died around them and Agum became their only hope of escape. For a month, she refused, withdrawing into herself and running away when they forgot to lock her in her room. Finally, faced with her family's overwhelming need Agum  relented. "We didn't want to force her," her mother said wearily, worry lines etched into her forehead as her daughter sat beside her. "I could not sleep for stress. My eyes were so tired I could not thread a needle."

The dowry was received, the marriage celebrated, and union consummated. Agum stayed three days and ran away. When her family hired cars to drive them the 40 kilometres to Leer, Agum went with them. She enrolled in the local school, where stick walls topped by corrugated iron sheets serve as classrooms for 10 teachers and around 500 students. Her husband followed. "He says, if the girl refuses me I must get my money back. Or I will take her by force,"  Agum  said quietly. "He sends me messages saying give me the money or I will be with you as your husband." Her family cannot repay even a fraction of the dowry. Their only assets are their two stained foam mattresses, three cooking pots and the  tarpaulin that covers their makeshift dome. There is nothing else to sell.

Then Agum’s  English teacher  Daniel Malou decided to step in.  Daniel has seen hundreds of students drop out due to the conflict. One girl left to work as a maid to help feed her family. Her generation was the first where the daughters were sent to school. A boy sickened and died; cholera has exploded throughout South Sudan  as the bacteria infects dwindling water supplies. Five girls this year also left for forced or early marriages,  Daniel said. Young, reluctant brides are not unheard of in South Sudan , but they are less common in good times, he said, at least in Leer. "Before the drought, the cases were less," he said, an inflatable globe hanging from the ceiling of his classroom. "Some parents do give their children to other men to get that money."

THE END No one knows how many families are making choices like Agum. Aid groups said most drought-stricken families are too poor to pay dowries after their animals died. None knew of a programme to help girls like Agum. Daniel  took Agum  to a local aid group, who took her to an Irish Aid group. The regional coordinator, visiting on a trip with EU donors, decided to intervene. "We must do something for this girl," said Jonathan, pouring tea for colleagues gathered to hear the story as the shooting could be heard in the distance. "Otherwise it will be a rape every night." Her staff held a collection and came up with enough cash to repay the dowry. Jonathan told Agum that the group would mediate a meeting between the men of the two families. Her husband would get back his money if he divorced her in front of witnesses. Agum’s  dark eyes flicked up from the floor. "Will I be free?" she asked.

John Skinnader,  Spiritan Congregation,  South Sudan