Keira Knightley’s eyes are welling up with big fat tears. The English rose actress blinks them away, fiercely, shaking her head, exasperated by herself. “I didn’t cry when I was there,” she says. “What bloody right would I have to cry when the people I met, who were living in as near to hell as I can imagine, weren’t crying?”
The “there” Knightley refers to is a refugee camp in South Sudan, where she was taken by Oxfam to see for herself the crisis taking place in the world’s youngest country, which marks its third anniversary of independence on Wednesday. The people she met were civilian victims of a civil war that has left five million people grief‑stricken, dispossessed and in urgent need of aid.
Hundreds of thousands are living in tents and beneath plastic sheeting, battling with disease, hunger and squalor. Malnutrition rates among little children are rising and, unless the world takes heed of their plight, the spectre of out-and-out famine looms large.
“I’d never been to a refugee camp before, but I’d seen images. I read newspapers, so I know what goes on in the world, don’t I?” says Knightley, 29, rhetorically. “But I’d never been in a post‑conflict zone, I’d never experienced the incredible, palpable atmosphere of terror or smelled the breathtaking stench of sewage from tens of thousands of people crammed together, with nowhere to go and nothing to do but wait.”
On her visit, Knightley spoke to Rebecca Karkwasni, a 25-year-old mother of five, whose husband had been killed in a raid at a previous camp. “To the horrendous question ‘What do you miss about your husband?’, she said. ‘I miss the way he holds me. I miss the way he makes my children laugh. I miss the way he makes me laugh. If I think about it too much my heart will break’,” says Knightley, eyes swimming over again.