Signs of another famine are everywhere in Sudan. In January the World Food Program predicted that as many as 3 million people could starve this year, and, with drought and civil war plaguing particularly the south, aid workers say that prediction is beginning to come true. They say it could rival a 1998 famine that resulted in the largest air drop of food in history.
Medical workers who reached Upper Nile province last month found thousands of displaced people surviving on roots and leaves. An outbreak of meningitis is moving through the community. In south central oilfield regions where fighting has been intense between Islamic government forces and southern rebels, fleeing residents have exhausted even wild food sources. And in Sudan's Nuba Mountains, a relief team found over 50,000 people at immediate risk of starvation. Some regions face the driest season in living memory, according to the UN food spokesman in Khartoum, Massood Hyder. Most famine, he acknowledged, is the result of the ongoing war that prohibits farmers from planting crops in the south.
For these reasons, feeding people can be an act of war itself. That is why it came as some surprise to relief experts in the region when Secretary of State Colin Powell announced, during a May visit to Africa, that the U.S. government would provide direct assistance to rebels and government-controlled areas alike. It was the first time the U.S. government designated food for Sudan's government-controlled north.
Mr. Powell said the United States will send 40,000 tons of emergency food to famine areas. At his order, the State Department diverted a freighter in the Indian Ocean to Port Sudan, where it is expected to deliver the first shipment of 17 tons of food. Those commodities "will be distributed regardless of need on both sides of the conflict," reported Andrew Natsios, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development and Mr. Powell's designated point man on Sudan relief. The UN's Mr. Hyder called the U.S. effort "a bold humanitarian gesture."
Earlier, in Washington, Bush officials announced that they will provide direct aid also to rebels in Sudan. The National Democratic Alliance, a rebel umbrella organization, will receive $3 million in logistical support. That money should purchase radio equipment and vehicles and other things the diplomats term "nonlethal" assistance.
The donations represent a new level of engagement for the executive branch in what has been just another African war. Advocates for a new policy toward Sudan have long been saying what Republican lawmaker Frank Wolf repeated at a recent hearing on Capitol Hill. The United States, he said, must "stop the slavery, stop the killing, stop the famine, stop the death." What they have not been hearing was the kind of reply he received from Richard Armitage, the State Department's No. 2 official: "You're right ... We've got to stop the war."
The administration's decision to engage both sides of the conflict runs contrary to campaign pledges from the president and his chief foreign policy advisors not to entangle the United States in civil wars. It also goes against a longer-standing policy of isolating the Khartoum regime through economic sanctions. Can it work?
Relief groups, even those long shut out of the UN's operations, are optimistic. "We do expect to see more of the food aid," said Samaritan's Purse vice president Ken Isaacs. Samaritan's Purse has a long history of service in Sudan but is not affiliated with the UN's network, Operation Lifeline Sudan. Instead, it has worked in areas labeled off-limits by the UN and Khartoum. Now, says Mr. Isaacs, the organization is finding a place at the table. Samaritan's Purse was one of nine relief organizations represented at a meeting with Mr. Powell in Nairobi on May 27. USAID already has begun to channel food to Samaritan's Purse for distribution in the Nuba Mountains and other "no-go" areas.
Nevertheless, the UN will deliver the overwhelming bulk of food supplied by the United States. With a fleet of C-130s based in northern Kenya, Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) is sole proprietor of the only adequate airlift capacity in the region. That monopoly tilts aid away from areas occupied by rebels or in dispute-areas most in need of relief-because OLS planes must have permission from Khartoum in order to fly. Last month, just after a Samaritan's Purse plane landed in the Nuba Mountains, one of the no-go areas, government forces shelled the plane. Mr. Isaacs said his group was able to deliver supplies and escape. Fighting between government troops and rebels ensued, however, and the airstrip is now closed, effectively halting relief to the region. Government forces also bombed the area, just after declaring an end to aerial attacks on May 24. Those kinds of attacks test the credibility of the Khartoum regime and cast doubt on talk of renewed peace negotiations. Now, they will also throw U.S. engagement efforts into question.
Credible engagement sooner or later will test U.S. sanctions policy. While the United States is now feeding the north, it is also blockading most legitimate forms of trade. Economic sanctions are in place to punish Khartoum for harboring and supporting terrorists, although the United States continues to exempt gum arabic, a soft drink ingredient, and other materials (see sidebar) on a select basis.
Relief workers know better than anyone that ending the war is the surest way to solve Sudan's persistent famine crises. Mr. Powell told reporters in Nairobi the United States is "going to work hard to bring a cease-fire into effect." He said he would work to reignite a regional peace drive known as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, or IGAD. Those statements quickly led to an IGAD summit in Nairobi on June 2, attended by Sudanese President Omar el-Bashir and rebel leader John Garang. The two could not agree on a cease-fire arrangement, nor did they even meet face-to-face, but talks will continue.
But some advocates for southern Sudan and its Christian minority oppose regional peace summitry. Rebel leaders and the interests they represent have not received the same standing in negotiations as the heads of state, they say. The Clinton administration's top Sudan diplomat also now opposes the process. "IGAD is the most dysfunctional organization I have seen," former U.S. special envoy Harry Johnston told WORLD. He said it bound Sudan's warring factions to negotiators Ethiopia, Kenya, Congo, Uganda, and Egypt. These, according to Mr. Johnston, have enough problems-ranging from corruption to their own civil wars-to render them ineffective peacemakers. "American and UN officials tied my hands" to that process, Mr. Johnston said. Mr. Johnston said that before the Bush administration names another special envoy, "he should be given a lot more authority than I had," including authority to negotiate one-on-one with the parties in the conflict.
As the Clinton administration learned in the Middle East, bringing warring factions to the table is the easy part. Laying out terms for peace requires willpower and a roadmap. So far, Mr. Powell and his advisors have been silent about what kind of peace the Bush administration would like to see. For Christians and other minorities in the south, the terms of peace will make all the difference.