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

April 21, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Staff Correspondent

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 and in Bosnia-Herzegovina at about half that.

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.

Such anguish goes untallied in remote places such as Thiet, a cluster of conical grass huts and decrepit brick buildings from colonial days.

Thiet sits on the western edge of the Sudd, a forbidding expanse of malarial lowlands. Until a United Nations worker arrived March no white person had been in this area since the British were evicted in 1956, according to village elders.

A conspiracy 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.

A rumor of food

Clustered at Thiet in the shade of trees sit nearly 7,000 people. They walked in from the Sudd, some as far as 130 miles, when word passed that food was coming here. Many are naked; others are dressed in goatskins. All are thin. They say they have eaten leaves and bitter nuts to survive.

These are the strong ones. They will collect 60 pounds of corn in bags marked "USA" in red, white and blue, and walk with the grain on their heads to weaker family members left behind.

Awem Atluwi walked eight days to get here. Of her seven children, four are dead of hunger and disease. Her husband was killed two years ago, and her only assets, five cows, have been felled by anthrax.

"I must take food back to them," she says of her remaining family members. "I do not know if they will be alive when I get there."

The first medicine to arrive in the area in 10 years came by plane this month. Yosef Mathuc Mau, a medical assistant trained years ago in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, sets up a rickety table in an old store and begins to pass out pills and ointments.

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