Background: a harvest of death: Famine stalks Sudan Civil war brings 'nightmare' for millions

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Background: A harvest of death: Famine stalks Sudan Civil war brings 'nightmare' for millions

April 21, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck, Staff Correspondent for the Baltimore Sun

THIET, Sudan -- They are always there. They wait, watching, patient. Every now and again they soar from the treetops in lazy flight, as an owner might amble about to inspect his property.

They will get their fill, the vultures of southern Sudan. Death is the only ample harvest in this land. The weak ones -- animal or human -- fall in the dirt, and there is often no extra strength to cover them.

The giant birds may seem to smile as the world turns away. No one wants to hear of more people starving in Africa. But the starving people are here. Survival depends on whether someone gives them food. For they have nothing.

What is happening in Sudan may already have eclipsed the death tolls of other standard bearers of misery, Somalia and the Balkans. Here it could become much, much worse.

Herman Cohen, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, has called it "one of the world's darkest humanitarian nightmares . . . a chaotic territory where civil war, disease, homelessness and hunger form a tapestry of tragedy for millions of Sudanese."

His words give voice to the weak resignation of a man here so thin that he seems just a clatter of bones. His wrinkled skin is overlaid with rags; he leans hard on a wooden branch to stand.

"You think I am old. I am not," he whispers. He says his name is Anthony Atiaktak and that he used to be a teacher.

"I am only 30. I am sick, and I am hungry," he says. "I have walked five days without food and waited three days here. Tomorrow you will not find me."

Southern Sudan has long been a forgotten tragedy. Remote and inaccessible, it is a place the size of Texas with few good roads and even fewer visitors. But in the name of religion, and culture, and power, men have long laid war on this land.

For the last decade, a grim civil war has been waged. The government of the north, which seeks to fashion an Islamic country, is fighting non-Muslim rebels in the south. The southerners historically have been oppressed by the north, and they resent Arab culture's rule over their traditional African ways.

But the southern rebels also have turned on each other. When not fighting the government, they have clashed in grabs for power, for territory and to satisfy old tribal grudges.

The fighting has whisked more than 3 million people about the countryside like wind-blown leaves. They have been forced from one temporary haven to the next, walking many miles, some for many years.

This is not a fat land. It is a land of scorching drought, disease and frequent floods. Forced away from their cattle and their crops, cut off from any helping hand, the people quickly wither.

Maybe a half-million have died since the latest phase of the civil war began in 1983. That is the figure most often used. Nobody knows for sure. By comparison, similar guesses put the death toll in Somalia at 350,000.

But to measure death on such scale makes it falsely academic. The calculation takes away from the individual pain of fathers who lose sons, mothers who cradle cold babies, children who watch their parents die.

A combination of nature and man gives birth to the misery here. Two years of hard rains in the Sudd drowned cattle and washed away crops. The civil war blocked trade or assistance from the north that could have buffered the blow.

'Horrific suffering'

The tragedy in southern Sudan is slowly reaching the eyes of the world. The glow of moral anger that sent U.S. Marines into nearby Somalia to help feed the hungry has cast a questioning light on Sudan.

The U.S. ambassador to Sudan, Donald Petterson, made a rare visit to the south last month and returned to describe "horrific suffering . . . walking skeletons, people on the verge of death, people riddled with diseases."

A survey last month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta found 32 percent to 81 percent of the children at four southern Sudan locations to be malnourished, and mortality rates 10 times higher than average.

The United States spent $60 million on humanitarian aid in Sudan last year and probably will spend $67 million or more this year. U.S. officials have hinted at intervening as in Somalia but acknowledge privately that such suggestions are meant only to pressure the combatants to reach an agreement.

Although the suffering and violence are comparable to Somalia's, the two countries are vastly different in other ways. Sudan covers a huge territory and has a working central government with its own armed forces. Getting U.N. support for intervention against a recognized government would be difficult.

The wisest course, Western officials say, is to get through as much food as possible.

Relief organizations, working with little publicity, meager funds and lots of danger, suddenly find themselves with offers of Hercules transport planes to rush in quantities of food.

The dusty U.N. base camp in Lokichokio, Kenya, just south of the Sudanese border, is a bustling airstrip. The temporary tents set up in 1989 for Operation Lifeline Sudan are being joined by concrete buildings.

But the disaster far outstrips their resources.

"We are finding out we grossly underestimated the size of the problem," says Gordon Wagner, an official of the U.S. Agency for International Development program in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. "We're finding more as we reach out into the areas."

Some areas remain a dark hole. In the Nuba Mountains, still closed to visitors, there are allegations of a massacre last Christmas by government forces, with estimates of up to 6,000 dead.

It was one in a catalog of alleged atrocities that accompany the conflict in Sudan between the Arab culture of the north and the African culture of the south.

The most recent phase of the conflict, the civil war that began in 1983, worsened after 1989. A military coup in Khartoum (Sudan’s capital) brought to power a government vowing to impose Islamic law, which is disliked by the southern Sudanese, who practice Christianity and tribal religions.

The southerners have long felt exploited by the north, which once sold natives of the south as slaves. Although the rebel groups are divided over whether they wish to form a separate country, they are united in rejecting control from Khartoum.

"We are fighting a holy war between Arabs and Africans, between Christians and Muslims, between our culture and theirs," said Ambrose Kot, a member of a rebel faction near the Ugandan border.

There are recent signs of an easing in the pressure from the government. When government attacks last year led to a pullout of vital relief supplies and a condemnation in December by the United Nations, the Khartoum government began to bend.

But optimism is undercut by Sudan's seemingly fatal attraction to war. A rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army faction led by John Garang began to move against towns held by opposing SPLA rebel factions last month, prompting the United Nations to pull back relief workers again.

Eyes of the starving

From the starving, there is a curious, level look. In infants, it is neither pleading nor accusatory. They are not angry; they are too young to understand that they have been wronged. They never learned that they have a right to food, a right to live.

Adults have no such innocence. Their eyes list the injustices done them. The old woman begs for food with a look and a feeble gesture to her mouth. The old man in rags struggles to stand and whispers with hoarse dignity that he will be dead by tomorrow.

The U.N. World Food Program and a handful of other organizations are hauling tons of food into southern Sudan, but the obstacles are enormous.

Because of the war, they cannot bring food from the north to feed southern areas under rebel control. They must bring supplies from Kenya.

Still, relief workers have been encouraged at the amount of food they are pushing into the country before the rainy season. By next month, runways and dirt roads could become traps of mud. The emphasis now is on volume.

No one has admitted to the killings. Relief organizations were outraged because the crimes probably were committed by one of the rebel factions whose people were being fed by the workers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report found that 81 percent of the children in Ame (an African village) were moderately or severely malnourished, even though Catholic Relief and a Norwegian relief group had been bringing food to the camp for five months. Deliveries have been too irregular, the camp officials say, and the food -- sorghum, corn and oil -- is often inadequate for children.

But the CDC finding also raised questions about whether food delivered to Ame was going instead to rebel soldiers. All relief operations in areas of fighting face the problem: Food for the victims often nourishes the war, as it was doing in Somalia.

Relief workers say they will be sure that all food gets to the needy only when there is a pact that ends the fighting between the government and the rebels, and among the rebels themselves.

"Until we get a cease-fire, it's like throwing money down a rathole," says Roger Schrock, who does relief work for the New Sudan Council of Churches.

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