Features

Blue Nile Blackout II

International | Even where there is a will, the way to help southern Sudan is long and treacherous

Issue: "Campaign 2000," July 29, 2000

"Without outside help ... they will all starve together."
-Dennis Bennett, June 10
WORLD

A declaration of fact became a statement of purpose for Dennis Bennett, director of the Blue Nile Project. One month after discovering near-famine conditions among the most recent victims of Sudan's civil war, he came back with new supplies to help the displaced in the muddy reaches of Blue Nile, a southeastern province where fighting continues and, along with it, the destruction of civilian life (see WORLD, June 10). During his time away, the number of displaced people climbed, and so did disease and destitution. The population of the largest displaced camps doubled. Overall, the number of those who have fled to Blue Nile since March increased from 63,000 in May to near 80,000 by the end of June. (Humanitarian workers define "refugees" as those who flee across international borders; they use the term "displaced" to describe those who flee within their own country.) Persistent malnutrition makes children and adults more susceptible to disease. One camp has already survived a measles epidemic, with an average of four children dying of the disease every day. Nearly everyone in the camps has diarrhea and parasites. Pneumonia among children is a growing problem. Some camps are reporting outbreaks of conjunctivitis and other eye infections. Topping it off, the displaced have not been able to plant crops-lacking seed, tools, good weather, and good health-and so have little prospect of a steady food supply. What has not changed for these Sudanese are the tactics used by government forces to take over their land. Displaced people from the town of Guffa report that food stocks were rounded up into the center of town, soaked in diesel fuel, and burned by government forces before the residents were chased out. What has also not changed is the blackout by relief groups and other international aid agencies. The United Nations oversees most humanitarian work in Sudan under a program called Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS). Blue Nile and other parts of southern Sudan are off-limits under the OLS program because the UN designates them "no-go" areas. Borrowing from aviation lexicon, "no-go" designations are commonly applied to hot spots for short periods of time as a warning against travel and work in unsecured territory. Pockets of Sierra Leone, Congo, and Kosovo are recent examples of "no-go" locales. Restrictions in Sudan, however, are different. In other "no-go" areas, the people uprooted are able to migrate to accessible areas, as in Kosovars fleeing to Albania last year, according to Africa analyst Jeff Drumtra of the International Committee for Refugees. "The Sudan 'no-go' areas are so large that it is difficult for people to reach a non 'no-go' area," Mr. Drumtra said. "What makes Sudan so different is that restrictions have lasted a lot longer-years and years-and the actual area of the 'no-go' areas is so vast." Why have the restrictions lasted so long? Here's where an attempt to placate a radical Islamic government may be condemning tens of thousands to starvation. Until March of this year, the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), which controls the no-go regions of Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains, tried to negotiate agreements with major relief organizations separately from the OLS program. Most small organizations working in southern Sudan signed onto a memorandum of understanding with the SPLA by a rebel-imposed March 1 deadline. Twelve major ones-mostly European organizations, along with U.S.-based Carter Center, Healthnet, CARE International, and World Vision-did not sign and withdrew their workers from the region. When the European groups pulled funding from Blue Nile, they left 60 tons of food supplies intended for displaced camps stranded at the Kenya-Sudan border. Large relief groups then took the pullout one step further, according to U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). They lobbied the State Department not to fund work in regions left out of OLS, even though Congress last year specifically authorized the federal agency to do so. Sen. Brownback said the organizations fear jeopardizing their working relationship with the government based in Khartoum, a radical Islamic regime that is prosecuting the war against south Sudan's largely Christian population and is using its seat in the UN to perpetuate the embargo on rebel-held territory. "We thought it was a major accomplishment to get authorizing language," Sen. Brownback told WORLD, "but the administration has failed to use it." Mr. Brownback said he spoke to State Department Secretary Madeleine Albright on July 6. He urged her to direct federal funds already allocated for Sudan food aid to the starving areas-as specified in last year's foreign aid appropriations-and particularly to Blue Nile. "Given Sudan's militant fundamentalism, ethnic and religious cleansing, this should be a big foreign-policy concern," Mr. Brownback said. But he is not optimistic that the Clinton administration will take the plight of Sudanese Christians more seriously. Executive branch indifference contrasts with broader interest among Democratic lawmakers, including the Congressional Black Caucus. Caucus members Eleanor Holmes Norton and Donald Payne have spoken out increasingly against the Clinton administration's Sudan policies. Interest among caucus members has been more evident since a June 1 letter from a national coalition of black pastors urged the lawmakers to see Sudan as a civil-rights issue and called for equitable distribution of government food aid. "U.S. food and medical aid has been blocked by Khartoum," the letter read, "because the United Nations' 'Operation Lifeline Sudan' allows Khartoum to dictate to [many leading] humanitarian agencies who shall and who shall not be fed. This policy of forced famine has resulted, according to U.S. agencies, in the deaths of tens of thousands." Relief organizations that hazard work outside the UN orbit are looking harder at Blue Nile. "I can say with all confidence that it is definitely the most desperate region right now," says Gary Kusonoki, head of Safe Harbor International, a California church-based organization that works in both Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains. "The numbers [of displaced] in Blue Nile are the highest and they are not going down." Earlier this month a medical team chaperoned by Safe Harbor linked up with Blue Nile Project to bring emergency food and medicine to the region's displaced camps. At one site the team treated 1,000 patients in one day. They also left trauma supplies to assist with landmine victims. Mr. Bennett's Blue Nile Project delivered five tons of grain and food supplies to the site, and later provided over 22 tons to the camp near Wadega and others in the region. Two weeks later, Samaritan's Purse, the North Carolina agency headed by Franklin Graham, also delivered medicine, seeds, tools, soap, and salt. It was the organization's first trip into Blue Nile, and international director of projects Ken Isaacs said he hoped it would be "the first of several shipments" to the region. Accompanying Mr. Isaacs was U.S. Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a member of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee who chairs its subcommittee on African affairs. Mr. Frist, a practicing surgeon before he was elected to office, performed surgery in southern Sudan during a 1998 visit and again this month at the Samaritan's Purse hospital at Lui further south. This was his first visit to Blue Nile. "The enemy is transportation," said Mr. Bennett. He spent three weeks in Blue Nile preparing the way for food and medical supplies-communicating landing coordinates and negotiating the purchase of as many emergency items locally as possible-before the hardest hit areas could be supplied. That kind of plotting carries added urgency because the rainy season has begun, and soon many displaced camps will be cut off from heavy transportation. Logistics will improve after the opening this month of a second airstrip in the region. Every pair of steps forward, however, seems to have at least one step in reverse. While the second airstrip is closer to those in need, it is also closer to the fighting between rebels and government forces. Relief workers also fear that larger cargo planes needed to serve the swelling displaced camps could become bombing targets. The rebels have handed major defeats to government ground forces in nearby Upper Nile since May. Rebel gains may slow the flight of displaced people into Blue Nile, but they may also incite the government to resort to air power, targeting camps, schools, and medical facilities as bombers have done in the Nuba Mountains. "We have to be careful about how we dispense food and where," said Mr. Kusunoki, who is also planning another shipment of relief aid to the region before the end of July. "... It is one of the most difficult things we have encountered-with the weather, the warfare, and all the logistics." Agencies that work outside the UN framework in Sudan "have pushed the threshold back on how much risk they are willing to take," said Mr. Drumtra of the International Committee for Refugees. "They do basic health care and food aid until the danger passes," he said, but it's harder to assess long-term needs in no-go areas: "In some cases, they cannot even look at the need, much less address the need easily. It is a combination of government restrictions based on the situation and UN willingness to go along with those restrictions." Mr. Brownback says he is hopeful in spite of the bureaucratic and political roadblocks. "Overall I am encouraged because a year ago we were in a constant huddle with ourselves in Washington on this issue. It is not yet a chorus, but I do see wider interest in what is going on there. But the wheels are moving so slowly you wonder how many people will die while they are doing it." Residents at Wadega, where WORLD visited in May, are not waiting to die. They are multiplying goat herds and carefully sharing the grain brought in by Blue Nile Project. The measles epidemic is generally over, and-because local residents and churches took in the sickest in the camp two months ago-overall health in the camp is much improved, Mr. Bennett reported: "These people are so industrious. They will be in real good shape because they are bootstrapping their own help. Twelve tons in Wadega is not a huge amount [of food], but in terms of how they will use it, it makes a big difference."

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Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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