Politics of starvation

International | Sudanese children in "no-go" areas will remain on the brink of death unless a U.S. delegation can change the way the world feeds the war's hungry

Issue: "Interview with Larry King," July 28, 2001

in Bouth, Sudan-While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest shall not cease," John Sudan read aloud as his relief flight took to the air. The Sudanese pastor, exiled to Kenya, was midway through a week of delivering supplies and preaching to his Nuer tribal homeland in Western Upper Nile. The area where Mr. Sudan touches down is a key battleground in the country's 18-year civil war between north and south, a hot zone of controversial oil development in the south exploited by overseas oil companies under protection of government forces. But southern forces under the Sudan People's Liberation Army are circling closer. On July 13 the SPLA shot down a helicopter gunship, one of three traveling from oil headquarters at Bentiu. A week prior, SPLA forces ambushed a government convoy near Wangkai in Block 4 of the oil concession region. Government troops were protecting an engineer and construction crew laying railroad track between the oilfields and northern Sudan. Overwhelming those forces, along with capturing their equipment and ammunition, propelled SPLA forces several miles closer to the heart of oil production. The heavy fighting of recent months carries a predictable toll of human misery. It takes eyes of faith to see harvest potential in the aftermath of conflict. Mr. Sudan is tending to both spiritual and physical life while others have gone home. In March and April, the UN's World Food Program flew two planeloads of wheat and maize into Bouth. In May UN authorities excluded this area from further deliveries. That action put 40,000 metric tons of additional food, provided by the Bush administration, off limits to this and other "no-go" areas in the south. Nearly all the new U.S. food is routed via the UN program, and the United States is by far its biggest donor. While the UN has beefed up its stable of Hercules C-130 cargo planes in northern Kenya and is helping to build a new fuel depot there to handle the load, it is not improving service to the areas that need it most. Such cargo planes each day chart a familiar flight path toward Western Equatoria, an area that eyewitnesses and SPLA officers say is running a food surplus. Adequate security is only part of the story in deciding where the UN will fly. The Khartoum government can veto drop points under the UN's arrangement for "negotiated access" and frequently does so, particularly to areas where the government's National Islamic Front is trying to win back territory. Frustrated with the UN's program, called Operation Lifeline Sudan, President Bush sent a State Department delegation to Sudan beginning July 13. Led by Andrew Natsios, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, it includes an aide to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice-the highest-level delegation to meet with government officials in Khartoum since the United States cut diplomatic relations in 1996. Mr. Natsios is hoping to pressure both Khartoum and UN officials to allow relief distribution based on genuine need. Behind the scenes, aides are working to redirect more U.S. aid to private relief groups working outside the UN program. Lawmakers want to push the administration further, given that last year the United States spent $94 million on humanitarian assistance in the war-torn country. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) calls the UN policy "a terrible human-rights abuse" that perpetuates "government-manufactured famines in the 'no-go' regions." On July 12 he and colleagues on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee agreed to a last-minute amendment to the Sudan Peace Act, which has already cleared the House. When it comes before the full Senate, it will compel U.S. agencies to target relief to "no-go" areas. One year ago Mr. Brownback made a similar effort in the Senate, but it failed to coax new habits out of either the Clinton administration or the UN relief program. Mr. Brownback said lawmakers are ready for decisive action from the new administration: "The convergence of recent events presents an extraordinary opportunity to challenge and overcome truly awful United Nations policy on Sudan," he told WORLD. Since May, when the UN designated the area around Bouth "no-go," it has refused to lift the flight ban, which also covers major relief organizations working under its umbrella, even though the SPLA has regained control for nearly three months. Private relief freight has trickled in from California-based Safe Harbor International, in addition to the London-based charity Christian Aid, which is working with Mr. Sudan and a Sudanese relief group called South Sudan Operation Mercy. Mr. Sudan and Christian Aid are ferrying basic supplies to war casualties: water cans, salt, cooking oil, mosquito nets, fishing line and hooks, medical kits, and clothing. Mr. Sudan's plane taxied to a stop on the dirt strip between two crude poles flying empty grainsacks bearing the UN seal-wartime substitutes for landing markers and windsocks. Residents in Bouth face no shortage of rebuilding that needs to be done. In March the National Islamic Front burned out the villages surrounding the landing strip. Not a hut was left, villagers attest. Troops also torched the only school and the Presbyterian church, along with a nearby medical clinic. The attack scattered thousands into nearby forests. The SPLA eventually routed them, the fighting moved on, and the civilians are back. New grass huts are springing up from the charred circles of old homes. Cattle, goats, and gazelles have returned to graze. Random corn pokes its way through freshly turned earth. The Presbyterians hold church services with the Catholics, whose church by the river survived the attack. Children swim again in the shallow water, spearing fish with sticks or hauling up water lily roots and seeds (a potentially toxic form of nutrition) in a never-ending search for food. Any sense of security, however, is tentative. About 35,000 new residents have joined the returnees, displaced from other battle lines, from fighting in the oilfield regions to the north and from battles in Bahr el Ghazal in the west. Severe malnutrition was visible among the newly displaced. They took shelter from the heat in nearby woods, and most appeared too weak to line up by the airstrip when relief supplies did arrive. Crude bomb shelters punctuated the landscape, along with craters created by actual bombs. Helicopter gunships and a lone bomber piloted by government forces make appearances in the wide sky several times a week-one appeared only hours before Mr. Sudan's plane arrived-keeping the locals in a persistent state of fear. When Mr. Sudan's cargo plane was emptied on the airstrip, dozens tried to scramble into its rear hold for the return flight in hopes of making it to a refugee camp in northern Kenya. Creating fear and uncertainty is the aim of the government, according to villagers. As evidence, they pointed to the aerial attacks, which come randomly and are apt to target the locals rather than a prominent SPLA garrison nearby. Two boys, ages 14 and 17, from the nearby village of Tam displayed bullet wounds in their backs received as a Soviet-era Hind helicopter gunship pursued them. A much younger boy sat under the shade of a tree, quietly molding gray mud into the shape of the aircraft. Mothers newly arrived in this area described how a gunship chased them and their three small children (ages 1-3) as ground forces set their homes on fire. "We had to move without anything," one mother said. They walked for five days, separated from husbands and other children and feeding only on pods plucked from trees. Hunger has whittled the children's legs to the circumference of spindles, and their survival is far from certain. "War here is different from other parts of south Sudan," said SPLA's deputy commander in this region, John Jok Nhial. "This is the oil area and the intention of the government is to see no humans, just land, so the oil can be taken." That is where Mr. Sudan, whose given name coincidentally agrees with his birthplace, comes in. "For us this place is completely secure now, and a good job can be done here," Mr. Sudan said. He is just one man with a big Bible promise, going to territory where the UN and its partners fear to tread.

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