Cover Story

Blue Nile blackout

More than 60,000 Sudanese people are newly homeless. Many of them are starving children. So why are the world's humanitarian organizations looking the other way?

Issue: "The Sudan crisis," June 10, 2000

in Wadega, Sudan - In paneled rooms over baize tables, they call this the "civilianization of conflict." Here outside Wadega, with the clay baking unshod feet to something around110 degrees and the leafless brown grove humming with too many thousands of flies, baser names come to mind. The displaced, who have spread their lean-to shelters beneath these shadeless trees, number between 5,000 and 10,000. Most families have been here one month, but more are arriving every day. Their stories are nearly the same. "Arabs," meaning government soldiers from Khartoum, chased them from their homes southwest of here, near the government-held town of Boing (pronounced "bunge"). The soldiers burned their houses, their churches, and their crops. They killed their cows and chickens. In short-because these people live off the land-they destroyed all means of livelihood. In Derep, a village near Boing, the government showed up with a mechanized division-soldiers with tanks. In the melee they captured two women and one man, according to village council member Jabala Raba. The man was able to escape, but the women were taken away with the soldiers. No one is sure if anyone died in the attack. Raids on villages like Derep come just at harvest time. That way, farmers lose not only much-needed grain and sorghum but also the opportunity to plant again before the rainy season. Mr. Raba and others believe the government's timing is intentional. Khartoum wants to run people out of resource-rich territory, and it wants to keep them away by starving them. Those who fled their homes walked northeast for two days before deciding it was safe to stop in southern Blue Nile, a province near the Ethiopian border that is currently under rebel control. The rebel forces, operating under the banner Sudan People's Liberation Army, or SPLA, have been fighting Khartoum for 16 years. They want self-determination and religious freedom for Sudan's African and mostly Christian population south of Khartoum, the capital. The government, on the other hand, imposed a strict Islamic code in 1983 and has been trying to make all of Sudan a radical Islamic state ever since. Rebels have had reliable control of this area for barely a year, but that is long enough to make the displaced from Boing feel safe to stay. And the SPLA is not running civilians from their homes. For several months government forces have been clearing their own citizens from the Boing area to make way for paying customers: overseas oil companies. Oil consortiums from Canada, China, Europe, and Malaysia are investing heavily in the nearby Adar oil fields, as well as larger oil fields south and west near the Nuba Mountains. They are convinced that Sudan has petroleum reserves roughly equal to those already found in the North Sea. The kinds of strong-arm tactics described by Boing residents typify the most recent wave of calculated evictions and government-induced famine across southern Sudan. The Blue Nile region is reporting over 60,000 new refugees since March. The Nuba Mountains region, meanwhile, has taken in 20,000 newly displaced people in the same period. In that region, more densely populated than Blue Nile, government forces are also targeting airstrips in a deliberate move to isolate people in the Nuba Mountains from the rest of southern Sudan and cut off critical food and medical supplies. Government soldiers killed residents who tried to return to their homes near Katero. Fifteen SPLA soldiers were also killed in that clash. Government forces have taken to attacking relief work directly, too. Since March, a hospital run by Samaritan's Purse near the southern town of Lui has been bombed more than a dozen times. The attacks have killed several patients and forced the North Carolina-based organization to evacuate its four American physicians. Government forces also bombed a school compound in Nimule, near the Ugandan border, on March 14. It is no coincidence that the United Nations has designated strategic regions-Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains-as "no-go" areas. The world body has allowed Khartoum to dictate how international aid is supplied to the country, and, not surprisingly, the Islamic government would like nothing better than an embargo on the seats of rebel control. Since 1998, 100,000 people have reportedly died of government-induced famine in those regions. Humanitarian aid as a weapon of war continues to produce poignant results: Last week, Sudan, through the UN's World Food Program, issued an international appeal for help with thousands of Eritrean refugees crossing into Sudan. At the same time, it made no mention of the starvation of its own displaced citizens just to the south. Sudan also welcomed last week the first shipment of American wheat in more than 10 years, but none of the 30,000 tons of U.S.-harvested grain that pulled into Port Sudan will go to the hungry thousands in Wadega. Finding evidence of famine in the Wadega camp is not difficult. Follow the thin bleats of goats and half-strung infant cries. At the doorway to one hut, children join the goats to munch on dried husks. Behind another, a young girl is wasting away, passing beyond the boundaries of survival (see cover). Her breath comes horrifyingly slow and shallow, with only the quiver of her ribs-enough to shake the flies-to say she is still alive. Signs of serious malnutrition are everywhere among the children: turgid bellies and hair leached orange by the persistent lack of food essentials. Normally clothed, women in the camp have abandoned all modesty and openly rub their breasts in hopes of finding something more to sustain their babies. The displaced are busy recreating village life with what they have, but it will not be enough. One young woman pounds a tough grain called dura. Another rolls sorghum flour into flat cakes. But throughout this camp, the foodstuff is measured out in spoonful amounts. There is no water supply. Although rains are coming, the wet season will cut off this camp from outside help when a nearby river bed, now dry, becomes a raging torrent. That will also bring mosquitoes and insect-borne diseases. "These children are worse than before," observes Magdalene Beato, a relief worker who visited this camp just four days ago. "Now I think many of them will die." Mrs. Beato works for CEAS (Church Ecumenical Action in Sudan), the only resident relief organization currently bringing food into Blue Nile. On this day she has come in a tractor with bags of sorghum seed for the permanent residents of Wadega who, between bad crops and living in a war zone, have struggled to produce enough food for themselves over the last year. Earlier she brought food supplies for the displaced camp and is now dismayed to discover that because the camp grew they are gone. "We took in food that was supposed to be rations for one month, but it lasted only one week," she said. What is notably absent from the scene of starvation are any of the large humanitarian organizations that regularly use Sudan's plight in fundraising appeals. Just as Khartoum is driving villagers out of their homes, it is also determining where groups like the Red Cross, CARE, World Vision, and others will work. The UN's "no-go" designation keeps away the big donors, who operate with UN "non-governmental organization" (NGO) status. For over a year, rebel leaders tried to negotiate a separate memorandum of understanding with these groups so they would operate in rebel-held territory. That agreement broke down in early March, when 13 NGOs, led by CARE, Oxfam, World Vision, Save the Children, the Carter Center, and Doctors Without Borders, pulled out of southern Sudan. At the same time, the European Union, which funded most of the CEAS work in Blue Nile, also cut off funding. Since then, according to Mrs. Beato and other CEAS workers, their ability to help starving people has evaporated. CEAS is operated through an alliance of mainline church groups, most notably the World Council of Churches and Lutheran World Federation offices in Geneva. Neville Pradhan, who coordinates CEAS support for the alliance, told WORLD that those organizations were aware of "an emergent emergency" in Blue Nile but could not raise enough money to help. He said, "It is factually correct that support has dropped" for Blue Nile projects since EU and others pulled out of rebel territories in March. Last year lawmakers in Washington tried to put an end to playing politics with food aid in Sudan. Provisions to deliver humanitarian aid to "opposition forces of Sudan"-meaning rebel-held areas like southern Blue Nile-were included in the foreign aid appropriations bill signed by President Bill Clinton last November. Supporters of the legislation congratulated themselves for ending Sudan's veto power over relief flights into rebel territory and the government's use of food donations as a weapon. But the organizations that typically distribute large-scale U.S. aid balked. Although they have submitted to Khartoum aid stipulations for a decade, they said submitting to the rebel parameters violated Geneva Convention standards that humanitarian aid be "impartial." "Politics is being used in Sudan as an instrument of starvation not only by the government but by the relief groups," said Nina Shea, a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a government panel that has highlighted Sudan as a "country of particular concern" because of its government's policies against the south. She told WORLD she had been assured by U.S. Agency for International Development sources that assistance outside the UN grid-despite the pullout of some NGOs-would increase. But relief workers WORLD spoke to in Blue Nile say they have seen no evidence of U.S. government aid to the region. In the Blue Nile blackout, longer-term development needs also go wanting. One hospital, located in the town of Kurmuk, serves a population of half a million. It has one doctor and no trained nursing staff. A skim coat of new cement on the ramp leading into the operating room is the only sign of recent improvement to the hospital complex, whose buildings date back at least 50 years to the British colonial era. Hospital "beds" in the facility are woven mats tossed across concrete floors in dark rooms or on outdoor verandas. Bandages, in a state of constant reuse, are stretched across nearby trees to dry in the sun. Lavrick Abraham, Kurmuk's attending physician, has one cabinet of medicine, mostly anti-diarrheal medications, some antibiotics, and renutrient biscuits. Yet, on a daily basis he treats everything from severe malnutrition to bullet wounds to childbirths. In the last year, he told WORLD, he has amputated 10 legs, all belonging to land-mine victims. Anti-personnel mines are strung along a riverbed just east of Kurmuk, planted by government forces during 1997-98 fighting in the area. When Dennis Bennett of the Arizona-based Blue Nile Project delivered a ceramic water filtration system to the hospital last month, he ran into an unexpected obstacle: Only one 55-gallon drum in all of Kurmuk could be found to process the water. Until that system was installed, the hospital collected its water supply via a pipe as rain sluiced directly off the roof and into the operating room. Mr. Bennett also delivered land-mine detectors to the region, and is somewhat reluctantly training locals to do their own minesweeping. "It was never my desire to be in the land-mine detection and removal business, but because this is a UN 'no-go' area, none of the Princess Diana organizations are able to go in. They would get all of their contracts with the UN cut off," he said. "So there isn't any other choice; the people of Blue Nile are finding the land mines by blowing themselves up." Unlike CEAS, Blue Nile Project is trying to channel as much aid as possible through the region's 30 evangelical churches. And, along with community development, Mr. Bennett has seen to reprinting local Bible translations and hymnbooks-a continuation of work begun in the region by Sudan Interior Mission (now known as SIM) more than 60 years ago. "I don't know how long the door will continue to be open," said Mr. Bennett, "so we try to bring in items both of spiritual and physical assistance. That way, even if we are no longer able to come in, we have left them a legacy." Absent a UN stamp of approval, self-reliance has long been second nature in Blue Nile. Wadega's permanent residents have offered to take in the thousands of new homeless who are camped nearby. "We are decided to make a place for them," said Michael Yerko Nadi, the primary school teacher in Wadega and an elder in the local church. Perhaps in his 60s (he is not sure of his birth date), Mr. Nadi walks more than five miles every day from his home in Wadega to meet with leaders in the displaced camp and determine how they can work together. His plan assumes that more grain and food supplies will arrive. Notes Mr. Bennett: "What that means, without outside help, is they will all starve together."

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