Starving Sudanese need our help now

August 13, 1998|By Clarence Lusane

THE RECURRING nightmare of famine in Sudan must be stopped. We need to bring pressure on those in a position to change this tragic situation.

Since the latest round of the civil war began in 1983, it seems that every couple of years or so the world has had to bear witness to the horrors of war and famine in Sudan.

More than 1.5 million people have died while two major famines and a growing third have wreaked untold suffering in the country. Between 1988 and 1989, a quarter of a million Sudanese in the south died as a result of refusal by combatants to allow food supplies to get to the hungry. Today, the United Nations' Operation Lifeline Sudan has been attempting to meet the needs of the starving, but its work has been limited by its agreement to work through the Sudanese government. By controlling the flow of humanitarian supplies, the government controls the flow of the war.

Preventing famine

According to the United Nations and other sources, somewhere between 500,000 and 1.2 million people may die this year from starvation unless emergency food supplies can be delivered. As the New York Times observed, planning ahead is critical to prevent future famine. In Sudan, the inability to get corn seed planted last month means another crop failure for next season.

The gut cause of this continuing tragedy lies not in the stars or the weather but in the behavior of humans.

The Sudanese government has played a murderous role. In its desperate effort to stay in power, the regime of Gen. Omar Hassan Ahmed al Bashir has overseen the starvation, rape, brutality, killing and enslavement of its citizens. While the southern part of the country continues to suffer the worst of these policies, little freedom or democracy exists in the northern region.

The Dinka people of the South, particularly women and children, are suffering not only from hunger but also slavery. Yes, slavery. The main takers of slaves are government-supported militias, although members of rebel groups, as well as some regular army officers, are also involved.

Where is the United States in all these horrors? Unfortunately, it appears to be so preoccupied with containing "Islamic fundamentalism" that it will not support negotiations with the Islamic government. The United States may also feel that an unstable Sudan is preferable to a stable one, which might threaten neighboring Egypt, a key U.S. ally.

In a war that most experts believe no one can win, one that costs the country a debilitating $1 million per day, it is the civilians who ultimately lose. With more than 5 million internal refugees, Sudan has more than any other country in the world. All the contesting hTC groups can do little other than continue the national bloodletting -- a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.

Reconciliation may not be possible. And imposing artificial unity may lead to more slaughter, the likes of which we recently saw in Rwanda and central Europe. Still, the international community, including the United States, must do everything in its power to find a political solution. The United States has the influence, if not currently the will, to keep the parties at the table and to have the United Nations place peacekeeping forces there as long as needed.

Ironically, the United States closed its embassy in Sudan in 1996, citing security issues, and moved its diplomats to neighboring Kenya, one of the sites of the recent embassy bombings. Now more than ever, U.S. policy toward Africa must be taken off the back burner. Finding a solution to the Sudanese tragedy would be a good place to start.

Clarence Lusane is an assistant professor in the School of International Service at American University in Washington. He's the author of several works, including "Race in the Global Era: African Americans at the Millennium" (South End Press, 1997).

Pub Date: 8/13/98

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