An eyewitness account of hunger

Not even the televison pictures had prepared me for the first sight of this camp - a sea of tiny, hungry figures in gray, sack-like clothes, group after group huddled together stretching away toward a range of forbidding, jagged mountains.

The bleakness, the dirt, the wailing, the funeral processions winding away into the distance each morning made it seem as though scenes from medieval Europe had materialized from the pages of a history book.

''Apart from the skin color, it looks like what I had always imagined the 9th century looked like,'' observed a veteran Canadian reporter as he and I stood at one end of the camp.

A visit here drives home the immensity of the settlement, the primitive conditions, the cold of the nighttime hours, and the lack of electricity. There is hardly any light at all after dark.

A ceaseless wave of sound breaks across the expanse - voices rising, falling, crying, murmuring, shouting, mourning.

In the midst of the suffering, groups of children manage to laugh and play, and older boys attempt makeshift soccer games.

Everywhere a white visitor goes he is surrounded by hordes of tiny children shouting ''fara-ji fari-ji (foreign person, foreign person).'' Every now and then a tiny hand would slip into mine and I would look down into a pair of large brown eyes belonging to a child of five who looked more like three, silent, bashful, utterly captivating.

The site slopes downhill. At the bottom, children under five whose weight-to-height ratio is less than 70 percent on a UN scale stay with their mothers, brothers, and sisters in rows of brown tents. They are fed small amounts six times a day: high-protein milk, biscuits, and rice.

When they improve to 80 percent they move to rows of green tents and are fed extra rations three times a day. If they reach 100 percent, they stop receiving supplemental feeding and their mothers must make do with a monthly distribution of grain, much of it from the United States.

When I was in the camp, the blue Mercedes truck donated by the European Community brought in 480 bags of American wheat from the US AID agency.

The emergency feeding center is run by Save the Children (UK) whose nutritionists work from a tent and a desk made from cardboard boxes covered with black plastic. Visitors sit on upturned biscuit tins.

Early morning is the grimmest time. Every few minutes officials carry away the bodies of those who did not survive the night.

Funeral processions set off in single file toward burial grounds on the other side of a nearby river bed. In cheerful contrast, women bake thin, circular pancake-type bread on rows of fires using wood brought in by truck.

Smoke fills their corner of the camp, drifting over hospital sheds in which patients lay four to a bed. French doctors leave at dusk and return in the morning because of risk of guerrilla attack.

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