Famine Getting Worse, Groups Warn

By Jim Lobe
July 1 (IPS)

Famine conditions in Sudan are becoming more desperate and continued bombing by the government is making matters worse, humanitarian aid groups warn.

The situation is especially perilous in the Nuba mountains and the largely rebel-held southern part of the country, analysts here say.

The World Food Programme (WFP), which two months ago reported that 350,000 people were at risk of starvation, now says 2.6 million people are in need of emergency food aid particularly in the south, where malnutrition rates have increased to as high as 60 percent.

''I've been involved with Sudan for 18 years, and this is the worst I've seen,'' says Roger Winter, director of the US Committee for Refugees (USCR), who returned last week from the southern Bahr El Ghazal region. ''If what we saw (there) was anywhere substantially present (elsewhere), we've got a hellacious famine on our hands.''

A two-year drought, caused by 'El Nino' weather conditions, is partly responsible for the situation. But the 15-year-old civil war, which is believed to have killed well over one million people, is the main culprit, according to independent analysts and relief organisations active in the country.

The Arab-dominated National Islamic Front (NIF) government has been trying to subdue the mostly black, mostly Christian Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) for more than a decade. The conflict, which also has involved looting, pillage, and abductions by free-lance warlords and pro-government Muslim militias, has been fought primarily in the south where the SPLA is based.

The war has also been waged in the Nuba Mountains of central Sudan where most of the Nuba people, who are black and Muslim, have allied themselves with the SPLA against the Khartoum government.

The government has used similar tactics against the Nuba as in the south, including the use of army troops and tribal militias to raid, loot, and destroy homes and villages, forcing inhabitants to abandon their fertile valleys. ''It appears to be part of a deliberate tactic to force the people into garrison towns,'' says Jemera Rone, a veteran Sudan researcher with Human Rights Watch.

The government in Khartoum sporadically permits the WFP to transport food aid to displaced people in the south but relief agencies lack access to rebel-held areas in the Nuba Mountains. As a result, Rone believes that as many as one third the 300,000 Nuba living under rebel control may now face starvation.

In May, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan persuaded Khartoum to admit a UN team to the mountains to assess the needs of the population. Three Sudanese members of the team were killed in an ambush last month, however, and Rone says the mission now is ''dead in the water.'' The SPLA and the government blamed each other for the fatal attack.

The situation in the south appears even more dramatic. According to relief groups, a failed SPLA attack on Wau, the capital of Bahr Al Ghazal, in January planted the seeds for the famine which now stalks the region.
Wau, a garrison town, was a major target for the SPLA which, with covert support from Uganda, Ethiopia and Eritrea, had made major gains against government forces over the past two years. During the same period, the United States provided about 20 million dollars in ''non-lethal'' military aid to all three neighbouring countries as part of its effort to isolate Khartoum.

The attack was carried out by SPLA forces and those of a local warlord, Kerubino Kwanyin Bol, a one-time SPLA commander who switched sides during the 1990s and marauded through much of the countryside, burning and looting homes and villages of the mostly Dinka people living there. Late last year, he rejoined the SPLA.

The combined SPLA forces launched the attack too hastily, however, and began looting the town before securing control, Rone says. The government was able to launch a successful counter- attack and retaliation against local communities. Tens of thousands more were uprooted from their homes and forced to become dependent on international aid.

The attack also provided a pretext for the government to limit relief flights by the UN's Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS), which transports food aid by road and air from Kenya, Uganda, and el Obeid in northern Sudan. OLS was first set up after the 1988-89 famine, in which some 250,000 people in southern Sudan are believed to have died.

OLS' inability to supply the region with more food during this period naturally worsened the situation on the ground. ''We lost a lot of time,'' notes Kate Almquist of World Vision, a Christian relief organisation working with OLS.

Under heavy international pressure, Khartoum granted WFP permission to fly 12 aircraft a day for deliveries to southern Sudan, and the UN agency is hoping to gain the government's agreement to establish ''safe humanitarian corridors'' by road into needy areas.

However, 12 aircraft amount to ''just a drop in the bucket'' compared to the need, according to a senior US official, who, along with others, decries the international community's failure to prevent the famine.

''Operation Lifeline Sudan had no other job except to prevent famine in southern Sudan,'' says Winter. ''It failed.''

According to Almquist, the WFP ''needs between 9,000 and 10,000 metric tonnes of food per month in order to meet the needs in the South. Currently, they are only able to provide about 5,000. We need more flights, bringing more food, or else thousands will die in a matter of weeks.''

WFP is trying to raise more money from donors. It says it needs about 140 million dollars in aid to feed the 2.6 million Sudanese in dire need of food aid from now until next April, but so far has pledges of only about 60 million dollars.

How much good that aid will do also depends on how the war is waged. Almquist, who also just returned from southern Sudan, is very concerned that the government's ongoing bombing campaign will make the relief effort much less effective. ''They're hampering the relief operation and terrorising the civilian population,'' she says.

Meanwhile, US officials are concerned that military gains made by the SPLA over the last two years may now be reversed, both because of the new refugee flows in the south and the unexpected outbreak of war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, both backers of the SPLA. The escalating conflict will almost certainly reduce the rebels' operations in the southeastern part of Sudan, notes one official.


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