In Sudan, officials fear another Somalia


By Mark Huband



The Boston Globe, 12 April 1993


AYOD, Sudan – The boy stumbles out of a dark, windowless room where wailing children wait to be fed. He rests his big head against a wall and vomits, then stands motionless, flies buzzing around his wrinkled skin.

Cartoons scrawled on the wall next to him reflect an endless spiral of war that has engulfed this East “African country since 1982.

The drawings show men with machine guns shooting animals, which are attacking other men with guns, who are shooting the men with the machine guns.

Back and forth, rival rebel factions of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army fight one another, bringing death, anarchy and hunger in their wake – and raising the specter of a disaster on par with Somalia before US-led military intervention last December.

Relief agencies estimate that deaths from hunger and conflict during Sudan’s 11-year civil war could total 1 million, with 350,000 dead since 1990 alone. Meanwhile, an estimated 2.5 million people have been displaced, either internally or as refugees in neighboring countries.

The US State Department recently estimated that one-eighth of Sudan’s 27 million people had been affected by a combination of famine and civil war and several hundred thousand face starvation if they do not receive assistance in the coming months.

But the money and the world outcry that accompanied the Somalia intervention seem unlikely to reach this part of Africa.

The UN World Food Program has only a fraction of the money needed to avoid mass starvation. A UN statement issued last Wednesday said the program needed $130 million for relief work in southern Sudan but only $14.9 million had been raised.

“The situation in some parts of Sudan is absolutely bleak, with starvation rampant in the south,” the United Nations said.

”While there is competition for emergency relief funds in many parts of the world, we believe that the needs for emergency assistance in southern Sudan should have the highest priority because nowhere else in the world are people in such dire straits.”

The causes of Sudan’s war are now all but lost in the mists of time, as new conflicts have emerged out of a chronic state of war. In general, the conflict began with the desire of southern Sudanese, whose Christian majority formed the SPLA in 1982, to break away from their Muslim rulers in the north.

The root causes go back further, to the era of British colonialism. Before independence in 1956, Sudan’s northern Arab population benefited from development financed by the colonial rulers. The south, which is dominated by Africans, was neglected, and the desire among southerners for a breakaway state was born.

But splits within the SPLA have emerged along tribal lines.

On March 27, troops loyal to the SPLA’s Torit faction leader, Col. John Garang, attacked the town of Kongor, forcing supporters of the rival Nasir faction, led by Commander Riek Mechar, to flee.

According to one eyewitness who was with the Nasir forces, 81 people were killed during the fighting.

The vulnerability of the population, which in most towns is totally reliant on food aid flown in by the UN Operation Lifeline Sudan, became clear on March 31 when relief workers were withdrawn from the towns of Waat, Ayod and Yuai.

The withdrawal followed a virulent message sent by Garang to the United Nations accusing it of assisting the Nasir faction with food and transportation.

When Garang’s forces attacked Kongor, they stripped the UN representative in the town, Jean-Francois Darq, to his underwear and marched him through thorn bushes in scorching heat. After a few hours he fell to the ground. Garang’s troops fired at him, but missed.

Darq was later found by Nasir troops and evacuated to Kenya.

In Ayod, the local commander of the SPLA’s Nasir faction, Elijah Hon Top, makes no effort to hide the connection with the United Nations.

“For the past two years there haven’t been any harvests. The soldiers have to live on UN food,” he admitted, confirming the claim made by the Garang faction.

The United Nations has now decided to shuttle workers to the three towns each day from a base at Lokichoggio in northern Kenya. If relief flights are affected by further fighting, it will leave 75,000 people in the towns without food.

According the head of UN relief efforts, Philip O’Brien, of the 3 million people in southern Sudan regarded as being at risk from food shortages, Ayod, Waat and Kongor are the most vulnerable. He described the daily withdrawal of staff from the region as “the only response to what may be an escalation in the fighting.”

Last week, under trees giving off the only shelter from the pounding heat, people were lining up for the rice rations brought in by UN relief flights. The lines were orderly: A man with a clipboard handed out the rations and marked names on a list.

“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” said Roberta Gordon of the Irish relief agency Concern, which was feeding 2,000 adults and children in Ayod until the attack on Kongor caused it and other relief agencies to pull out.