WORLD

Desperate hunger

Relief groups rush to stave off starvation

June 12 1989
WORLD

Desperate hunger

Relief groups rush to stave off starvation

June 12 1989

Desperate hunger

WORLD

SUDAN

Relief groups rush to stave off starvation

To provide desperately needed food for two million hungry people caught up in a brutal civil war in southern Sudan, the United Nations is co-ordinating a $ 180-million relief project named Operation Lifeline Sudan. Maclean’s Nairobi Correspondent David Jones recently visited the area. His report:

Calgary-born bush pilot Scott Cunningham, flying a twin-engined Cessna 402 for Operation Lifeline, made one slow pass over the dirt strip at Lokichokio, a town in northwest Kenya near the Sudanese border, and touched down in a carefully controlled skid. The heavily laden plane skidded left, then right before coming to a halt, its wheels and wings caked with thick red mud. Said Cunningham: “That wasn’t too bad. But taking off again is going to be tricky.”

Since the rainy season began in mid-May, the relief operation is becoming more difficult for the consortium of international relief agencies—ranging from UNICEF to the International

Committee of the Red Cross—which is racing against time to deliver 100,000 tons of food to southern Sudan before the roads and airfields become unusable again in December. The agencies are trying to prevent a repetition of last year’s human devastation when an estimated quarter of a million people starved to death in the region. After floods destroyed crops in the area, relief attempts were blocked by a civil war—now in its sixth year—which pits the black Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) against forces armed by the Arab government in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital 1,000 km to the north. In March, after long and difficult negotiations, the Sudanese government gave the UN permission to begin Operation Lifeline, and the SPLA has agreed to a temporary ceasefire. Since then, relief agencies have shipped up to 60,000 tons of food to southern Sudan. But many obstacles remain—both natural and manmade. And if the operation fails, UN officials say, another 100,000 people could die this year.

As the least-developed region of one of Africa’s poorest nations, southern Sudan has always been a place of desperate poverty. Now it presents scenes of dreadful human suffering. Refugees from the war congregate in wretched squatter camps around government garrisons, where there is some chance of receiving food and medical aid. The relief team that I accompanied arrived at Kongor, a random collection of two or three dozen mud huts and one concrete block building. Dozens of naked children—their skins rubbed to a ghostly pallor with ashes to ward off flies, their bellies distended by hunger—welcomed us with brave grins and pitifully outstretched hands. We brought sacks of grain, but only enough to keep the miserable encampment alive for a very short time. And no one could be sure how much longer such supplies would continue to reach them.

On the outskirts of Juba, the largest government-held town in the south, about 200,000 refugees are clinging to life in tattered tents and improvised mud huts. They have learned to expect little help from the Sudanese authorities. Relief workers said that when the situation was at its worst late last year, flights from Khartoum brought military supplies and goods for local Arab merchants—but nothing for the starving people. And relief workers who tried to help them were often rebuffed or even expelled. At that time, it was impossible to fly into some government-held towns because rebels, trying to starve the garrisons out, shot

down planes with anti-aircraft missiles and mined or staged ambushes on overland routes.

In the southwestern part of the divided nation of 23 million—almost three-quarters Moslem, the rest adherents of the native animist religions or Christians—it was not flooding but drought, and a war-shattered food distribution system, that drove scores of thousands of people from the area. At Muglad, a refugee centre just north of the war zone, Colleen Cameron, a nurse from Antigonish, N.S., said that a government policy of giving Moslem tribesmen automatic weapons to fight the rebels had made the situation even worse. Often, she said, Moslem militiamen raided the Christian or animist Dinka people—killing the men, stealing their cattle and taking their women and children into slavery. Added Cameron: “The militia even raided this camp a few months ago and kidnapped three women.”

One of the Muglad refugees, James Mawien, a 40-year-old Dinka, said that he fled with his wife and four children to find food and escape from the war. But he was kidnapped on the road and forced to work for three months for an Arab farmer, who held his wife and children hostage. Alai Aguer, who fled when militiamen burned her village, said that her husband died

of disease and her three daughters were abducted on the way north.

Hundreds of thousands of other Dinkas, rather than move north through hostile territo-

ry, have tried to reach UN-run refugee camps in Ethiopia, across Sudan’s eastern frontier. Only the strongest have survived the 700-km journey. Those who have, mainly teenaged boys, said that they had found their way by following a trail of bones—the sun-bleached skeletons of those who had gone before. Said UN official Kingsley Amaming: “Sometimes, we see walking skeletons arriving.” Inside southeastern Sudan, the Red Cross is the only agency permitted to fly food into many of the worst-affected areas. By the end of May, the Red Cross had supplied 12,000 tons of food from its base in Khartoum and from neighboring Kenya and Uganda. But, said Michael Kuhn, the Swiss chief Red Cross delegate at Lokichokio, those stocks would meet only a fraction of the needs of the most distressed districts. Meanwhile, because I of the onset of the rains, four relief g pilots were stranded for days when I their planes skidded off a muddy run| way near the Ethiopian border on May 1/1 19. And as the rains become more intense and the airstrips and dirt roads get muddier, the tasks of Scott Cunningham, Colleen Cameron and others in Operation Lifeline will become even more difficult—and the danger of wide-scale starvation will deepen. □