UN air drops food in Sudan's Nuba mountains: new front in war on famine

by Michel Sailhan

Nuba Mountains, Sudan
Nov 26 (AFP)

The United Nations has opened a new front in its war on famine in Sudan with air drops of food from cargo planes flying over the rebel-held central Nuba mountains.

"When they saw the first planes arrive, people ran away. They thought it was a government bombing raid," Stefano Porretti, an employee of the UN World Food Program, told journalists touring the area.

The WFP launched the air drop program on November 14, the first of its scale in the Nuba mountains, sheltering a famine-stricken community of hundreds of thousands in the clutches of drought and a gruesome 18-year civil war.

The UN, which provides food to one out of every 10 Sudanese, now aims to deliver 2,000 tonnes of food a month to this region under a deal involving the warring factions and a main food supplier, the United States.

"Eighteen tonnes (of mainly wheat) are dropped on every trip," Porretti said.

In Karkar, as in two other communities of the region, C-130 Hercules and Ilyushin transport planes appear several times a day over the rocky hills studded with baobab trees.

As they approach the target, they point their noses to the sky and open their rear hatches, dropping a garland of white extra-strength bags.

Below hundreds of women and children wait for the drop. Some have walked for three days to fetch supplies. They are poorly clothed in faded flower dresses, ragged shirts, barefoot or in sandals made from tires.

"In July and August, the situation was very difficult because of the drought and fighting," said Abdulaye Balde, the WFP coordinator for the Nuba region. "We tried to come but the government did not give its approval."

During those months, at least 450 people died for lack of food, according to officials in the region. However, the situation has improved since then.

"It's the harvest period. There is sorghum, beans and mangos. What we're bringing them now is helping them to stock up on supplies," Balde said.

Karkar, like many areas of the Nuba mountains, is under the control of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), which since 1983 has been fighting successive Arab and Muslim governments in Khartoum.

It recruits mainly from among animists and Christians in the south.

Following the example of Dinka tribesmen of the south and other ethnic groups, the 500,000 Nuba people took up arms against the government in the late 1980s.

Recent fighting has left more than 158,000 people displaced or lacking in basic needs, the WFP says.

The peasants have fled the fertile plains to find refuge in the SPLA-held mountains or have left the region altogether to join some two million displaced people crowded around the capital.

Others have drifted into government "peace camps" where "they are forced to change their name and their religion and become Muslim," according to regional SPLA commander Abdel Aziz Adam Al Hilu.

In the latest offensives, Abdel Aziz Adam charged that "government forces abducted 1,800 civilians and burned 8,000 houses. The government is using food as a weapon."

The United Nations, which in 1989 launched the massive relief operation "Lifeline Sudan," feeds or supplements the dietary needs of some 3.7 million of Sudan's 30 million people.