It's not called a famine, but thousands starve Sudan: A vicious civil war and years of drought combine to push a people accustomed to adversity over the edge.

May 17, 1998|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AKUEM, Sudan -- Ajok Luah Luah, 25, a young mother of upright bearing but dwindling strength, is the anguished face of famine-threatened Sudan today.

For three days, she has eaten nothing but wild leaves, walking by night, sheltering under the shade trees by day, all the time cradling her 14-month-old baby in her arms as she flees from civil war.

Her little daughter is sick, coughing and perspiring with fever; her hair is copper-tinted, the tell-tale sign of malnutrition.

Ajok still suckles the baby at breasts that may soon be as arid as the terrain across which she trudges in her soiled cream and purple garb, a figure of wretchedness.

She is just one of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands facing starvation in this benighted place.

"Time has basically run out," says Diane de Guzman, field program manager for southern Sudan with Britain's Save the Children Fund.

Fifteen years of civil war and two years of drought have overwhelmed the centuries-old coping mechanisms of a people who know how to counter adversity but now hover daily between life and death.

"We knew that by this year, if nothing complicated their coping mechanisms, there could still be a disaster," says David Kugunda, of UNICEF. "Unfortunately, something happened, and that something was war."

The war between the Muslim-led government forces of the north and the secessionist Christians and animists -- believers in traditional spirits -- of the south intensified earlier this year.

It is a seemingly endless conflict in which arms are more plentiful than food, with the government said to be supplied by China, Iraq, Iran and Malaysia and the rebels getting arms through Uganda and Eritrea. Neither side seems able to win.

At peace talks this month in Nairobi, Kenya, the rebels obtained the promise of a referendum on independence for the south but rejected the government's offer of a cease-fire, suspecting that the government forces wanted time to recover from losing battles.

The rebels are poised to take garrison towns in Bahr el Ghazal.

Displaced by the ebb and flow of the conflict, which has left their villages razed, their homes and crops burned, people and livestock seized, the refugees have been deprived of all means of self-sufficiency.

The Islamic government's reaction to the food crisis has been confused. In February, when the rebels were on the offensive, it banned all relief flights.

"The government has been using food as a weapon of war," says one aid program manager, asking not to be named.

Then, this month, the government finally agreed that five C-130 Hercules and three Buffalo cargo planes could have unfettered access to the hunger area for the month of May. Khartoum authorizes flights on a month-by-month basis.

There is, however, suspicion now that Khartoum's belated acquiescence is cruelly timed.

"I'm afraid Khartoum may have almost set us up here to fail," says de Guzman: "Now it is just too late, and they are going to say, 'We gave you the planes, and people are still dying. You guys failed.' That's what really worries me."

And as if the conflict itself were not enough, help from international aid donors has been slow in coming.

The major donor countries played down the first warning signals from October's annual assessment by the World Food Program. Only after the fighting displaced 100,000 refugees around the city of Wau in January did they respond to an emergency appeal with $28 million worth of aid.

The United States has provided 48 percent of the aid, supplying 8,500 tons of food worth $2.4 million. With transport included, the U.S. contribution has cost $13.3 million.

The original estimate by the World Food Program was that 30 percent of the 1.5 million people in the region might be victims of the seasonal "hunger gap," facing a calorie deficit of 15 percent to 20 percent.

Now the calculation is that 40 percent of the population lacks up to 40 percent of the normal diet.

Could have acted earlier

"It didn't have to reach this level," says Jason Matus, food economic officer with the WFP. "We could have responded earlier with less if we had had the [airlift] capacity and the access."

Barbara Barton, WFP spokeswoman in Nairobi, says, "Many of the people are now starting to move in search of food."

In Gogrial County, where aid agencies are expected to feed 250,000, they now have an additional 100,000 hungry war refugees.

East Aweil County, where the local population of 203,000 is unable to feed itself, is expected to become the haven for as many as 300,000 fugitives from the fighting in West Aweil.

People have been reduced to eating the seed they were saving to plant for the late August harvest.

They frequently also eat the aid seed, although it is chemically treated and makes them sick. To counter this, aid agencies are trying to distribute food and seed simultaneously, hoping to get the seed in the ground before it is consumed.

But much of the land still lies fallow, baking ever harder under the relentless equatorial sun.

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