HIS eyes fixated on me. They bore right into my own, rarely blinking, as if reading my thoughts. Old eyes they were, not those you would expect of a one-year-old child. They were worldly eyes, damning, tender and terrified all at the same time. What those eyes had already witnessed I could only imagine.

What hardship, suffering, wickedness rather than the usual childhood wonderment had seared back through this youngster’s gaze to give him this look?

His name was Yap Ji Kany, and his whole being seemed to me etched with anguish.

Perhaps his look came not so much from what he had seen as the pain and hunger this little boy was clearly enduring.

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I call it the acid test. A child is dying before your very eyes, not on television, not in a photograph, but right there in front of you. While wishing the need never existed, I’ve lost count over the years of the times when I also wished others might witness this for themselves. Only then perhaps would fewer of us have the capacity to turn our gaze away, for I defy any sane person to stand before a starving fellow human being and not feel outraged and want to help.

That day almost four years ago when I came across little Yap Ji Kany was far from a unique experience but for some reason it stays in my mind.

I’ll never forget the feverish sweat that streamed down his face, congealing where it collided with the cream smeared in a vain attempt to relieve the corrosive rash of a skin infection that had broken out across his face and tiny malnourished body.

His young mother, Nyaker, was sitting on a plastic chair with Yap Ji perched on her lap. Everywhere around them lay the stinking open sewers and tarpaulin tents of Tomping Camp, bulging with other hungry, displaced families.

Nyaker and Yap Ji had come here to Juba the capital of South Sudan, from the northern town of Bentiu. War, fear and above all that other horseman of the apocalypse in South Sudan, hunger, had brought them from Bentiu’s misery to this wretched UN Juba compound awash with rainy-season mud.

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Caught in the crossfire between government and opposition forces in Bentiu, Nyaker, Yap Ji and his brothers and sisters had at first fled their village into the bush. Three days later, what little money the family had was spent and the pangs of hunger began to take their toll on the youngsters.

Nyaker had no choice but to steer her children through the frontline fighting and make her way to the camp in Juba in the hope of finding food and shelter.

“We saw lots of bodies, so many dead as we came from the bush into the camp,” Nyaker recalled.

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Though comparatively safe from the fighting while in the camp it was now starvation that threatened her children’s health.

“Always they are hungry, asking

about food many times every day, but what can I do? There is so little to go round,” Nyaker told me, the desperation evident in her eyes. Though years have now passed since I met Nyaker and her children, today hunger still stalks South Sudan.

In this long-suffering part of the world there is a local proverb that says: “When God made Sudan, he laughed.” The irony of the proverb’s meaning is all too true and could just as easily apply to so many parts of the world where hunger is near constant and full-scale famine never far away.

Just last week a report by the humanitarian agency Save the Children estimated that 85,000 children under the age of five may have died from acute malnutrition in three years of war in Yemen.

“For every child killed by bombs and bullets, dozens are dying from hunger and disease and it’s entirely preventable,” Save the Children said in its statement.

The key phrase here of course is “entirely preventable”. Over the past weeks the United Nations itself has warned that 14 million Yemenis are now on the brink of famine.

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What’s more Yemen is not alone in facing the scourge of hunger. According to the UN’s most up-to-date figures, global hunger has risen over the past three years, returning to levels from a decade ago.

Right now a staggering 821 million – or one in every nine people – are hungry, making the Sustainable Development Goal of zero hunger by 2030 little more than a pipe dream.

While each of the countries affected by the threat of famine over the past few years are so because of conditions specific to each of them, war has been a contributing factor in every one. And war as we know is “entirely preventable”.

In Yemen, which the Famine Early Warning System Network calls “the largest food security emergency in the world” perhaps as many as half a million children are severely malnourished.

MORE than any other country, Yemen demonstrates the human consequences when food access becomes a wea-pon of war. Nowhere is this more evident than in case of the country’s port city of Hodeidah, currently the scene of bitter fighting.

Prior to the war, 80% of all imports into Yemen entered through this port. With Yemen heavily dependent on imports for most things, including 90% of its food, continuous attacks on the port by both sides have crippled the food supply system without providing any real alternative.

Last week the UK Government presented a draft resolution to the UN urging an immediate truce in Hodeidah, giving both sides of the conflict a two-week deadline to remove all barriers to humanitarian aid.

Welcome as this is, Britain’s stance has not always been so considerate. Indeed for a long time at the insistence of Saudi Arabia, and backed by the UK and the US, the UN Security Council imposed a blockade on Yemen.

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“While the famine deepens, the British and American navies persist in enforcing the blockade and diplomats at the Security Council discuss how they could recalibrate the embargo,” pointed out Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation, last year in a hard-hitting essay in the London Review of Books.

All of them, De Waal went on to add, “are in danger of becoming accessories to starvation”.

This too before the million of pounds worth of weapons that both the UK and US sell to Saudi Arabia that help prosecute the war in Yemen.

De Waal believes that what we have witnessed now in a number of countries like Yemen over the past years is the return of famine as a weapon of war.

He argues that while humanitarians in the short term are faced with ever-

increasing demands on their knowledge, skill and resources, their longer-term strategy should also be to take the initiative in proposing that starvation as a weapon of war be added to the list of crimes against humanity.

De Waal’s treatise is also borne out to varying degrees in other countries that have been under the threat of famine in recent years,

The very definition of famine itself of course is based on strict criteria. On the international level, organisations use what is called the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPS) to determine the level of food insecurity in a specific area. The IPS system examines food prices, harvest yields, average income changes and household food neediness in determining which phase an area falls under.

It is, however, generally this last factor that most people associate with food security.

It is phase five (catastrophe) within the IPS that constitutes an actual famine. This means that 20% of households are facing extreme food shortages, 30% of the population faces acute malnourishment and there are two hunger-related deaths per 10,000 people per day.

The other two important categories are phase three (crisis) and phase four (emergency), which are the fore bearers of the most extreme classification (catastrophe).

Last year the UN declared that parts of former Unity State in South Sudan were officially at the catastrophic phase of famine. This impacted on more than 100,000 people, although later that famine classification was rolled back after humanitarian intervention.

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In all, five years of intense civil warfare have decimated South Sudan’s economy and killed an estimated 380,000 people. Even with a recent peace deal between the warring sides, a third of the population is displaced, every second person is going hungry and hundreds of thousands are at risk of starving to death, says the UN.

As Alex de Waal again points out: “The government and the rebel armies have fought much less against each other than against the civilian population.”

This is an all-too-familiar story. Like South Sudan, north-eastern Nigeria too has been engaged in years of violent conflict, in its case between the government and jihadists of Boko Haram that see themselves as the West African wing of the Daesh group to which it pledges allegiance.

Nigeria might be the world’s tenth-largest oil producer, but just as quickly as it pumps out its 2.4 million barrels of oil a day, so Boko Haram’s scorched earth tactics spew out a gigantic flotsam of displaced humanity that now stands at 2.2 million people.

As I was to witness myself during a visit to the region, hunger for many is never far away. As the Nigerian army slowly reduced areas under Boko Haram control, they found small towns where thousands have starved to death.

“Right now I cannot go back home, my husband is dead, my house burned to the ground and there is no food, so what is left of my life is here now,” one woman called Naomi told me when we spoke in the dusty backstreets of Pantami, a neighbourhood in the town of Gombe to where she had fled from Boko Haram.

Years of war, too, have impacted dramatically on food security in Somalia and pushed this long-suffering country often to the edge of the abyss. The last famine there in 2011, killed almost 260,000 people. One powerful lesson learned from then, was that famines are also not simply about food. They are about something even more elemental: water.

Just as in Yemen now where there has been a cholera outbreak, a lack of clean water and proper hygiene has persistently set off outbreaks of killer diseases in Somalia’s displaced persons’ camps. But even if drought has played its part in Somalia’s hunger, as in so many other countries, conflict lies at the core of its crisis.

During my last visit to the country, the threat from the al-Shabaab militant Islamist group, that has sworn allegiance to al-Qaeda and has banned Western aid agencies, was underlined by bomb attacks in the capital Mogadishu.

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Swathes of territory remain virtual no-go areas for humanitarian organisations, making any effort to prevent the onset of widespread hunger very difficult.

The terrible irony in all of this of course is that much of the food and water to tackle these hunger crises frequently exist even within these hard-hit countries.

But wars often created by personal rivalries between a few men turns life upside down for millions, destroying markets and causing the price of necessities to rocket.

In times past famines used to attract broad interest in the West and developed world. Music and movie stars could be relied upon to front benefit concerts and relief campaigns. Those days, it seems, have passed but famine still stalks the lives of millions of our fellow human beings. As Yemen too starkly shows, once again it is fast becoming the horrific weapon of choice in wars across the world.