Beneath a sprawling tree in a crowded village in the hot Sudanese sun, some 250 men gathered to recount their perilous trek from Darfur. They had arrived in southern Sudan after fleeing the danger and destitution of the country's war-ravaged western region. Joe Madison, a U.S. human-rights activist, asked how many had lost family members to the war in Darfur. "Every man in that group raised his hand," Mr. Madison told WORLD. He asked the men what they needed. They answered: "Food, water, shelter, protection." He asked them what they had lost. They answered: "Everything."
Since civil war erupted three years ago in Darfur, at least 3 million Sudanese have lost their homes and livelihoods, while some 300,000 more have lost their lives. Aid work has become treacherous, and the UN World Food Program recently began cutting in half its already-minimal food rations, citing a lack of funds.
With food supplies dwindling and the rainy season approaching, relief workers warn that thousands more across Sudan will face disease and starvation if the international community doesn't intervene now. "Hundreds of thousands more people will die from hunger, malnutrition, and disease," said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Mr. Madison, who spent two weeks in southern Sudan this month, says: "The next two to three weeks are critical." When the rainy season begins in June, the arid ground and empty riverbeds in Sudan will overflow, becoming swamplike. Gutted-out, dirt roads will become impassable to relief workers, and anyone without shelter will be left to endure rain, mud, and a slew of water-borne diseases.
Mr. Madison, a Washington, D.C.-based radio host who helped organize the recent "Save Darfur" rally in Washington, traveled to southern Sudan on a fact-finding and relief mission with Christian Solidarity International (CSI), a Christian relief organization. The facts they found were grim, including "a terrible lack" of food and clean water, insufficient shelter, hospitals with no medicine, and scores of people withering away from disease and malnutrition. The trip provided stark evidence that the nation's crisis isn't limited to Darfur. "All of Sudan is a mess," says Mr. Madison.
The plight in southern Sudan stems from 20 years of civil war with Sudan's oppressive Islamic government in the north. Though the north and south signed a peace agreement in 2004, leaders in southern Sudan say the north isn't abiding by the deal. They specifically cite a failure to share oil wealth with the south. Without those revenues, leaders in southern Sudan are impotent to provide food, water sources, and passable roads for the flow of supplies. "It's like genocide without bullets," says Mr. Madison.
That Sudanese would flee from Darfur to the deplorable conditions in southern Sudan shows "true desperation," says Mr. Madison. Villages in the south have scant water sources for scores of people, and Mr. Madison says he faced a steady stream of adults and children approaching him to ask for food.
While refugees pour into the south from Darfur, others flow in from the north. Mr. Madison says CSI met one group of young men, ages 8 to 20, who had been freed from slavery in the north and recently managed to return south. The boys told stories of being forced to convert to Islam and work endless hours for little food. They and others who return from the north will find a new struggle for survival in the south.
To help with survival, CSI has been busy preparing and distributing "sacks of hope" containing survival supplies for Sudanese families. Each sack costs about $36 to assemble and distribute, and Mr. Madison says the kits "could truly save lives."
Meanwhile, warring factions in Darfur continue to struggle to reach a full peace agreement, with two rebel groups refusing to sign an accord. The UN Security Council passed a resolution to take over peacekeeping operations in Darfur, though forces likely won't be on the ground until September. Until then, Mr. Madison says the international community must "cut the red tape" and expedite supplies of food, water, and medicine to Sudan before it's too late.