In Sudan, famine relief work resumes. 1985 food deficit is put at 1.4 million metric tons

Famine relief efforts, which came to a virtual halt in Sudan after the coup earlier this month, have resumed. Gen. Abdel-Rahman Swareddahab's military council has established governmental control, ended strikes, and promised to start Sudan on the road to democracy. Calling the famine ``one of the most important issues we have faced since the beginning of this revolution,'' General Swareddahab has met with the heads of relief agencies working in Sudan, and pledged to ``combat any threat that might make the famine situation worse.''

Food riots and a general strike immobilized Khartoum and precipitated the coup that toppled the government of President Jaafar Nimeiry. Sealed borders, abandoned ministries, gasoline and power shortages, and the general confusion surrounding the coup all conspired to keep urgently needed food and medicine away from the millions here who are suffering from Africa's drought.

By any objective standard, the famine here is already a severe crisis, analysts say. Sudan's 1985 national food deficit is estimated at more than 1.4 million metric tons, and Swareddahab himself admits ``there is a gap in food which we have to bridge.'' The United Nations' Children's Fund (UNICEF) reports that up to 6 million Sudanese are ``seriously affected'' by the drought, and that 2.5 million have left their homes in search of food.

Some officials fear that 1 million here could die from starvation-related causes in the coming year. Malnourishment is nearly universal in the countryside.

Perhaps the most desperate encampment of displaced Sudanese is located in the isolated Tokar area of the Red Sea province -- a four-hour drive through desert sands from Port Sudan. Earlier this year some 1,000 families of the Beja and Hadendoa tribes settled there because their animals and crops were dying from the drought. After an initial grain shipment by the UN-affiliated World Food Program arrived in February, the camp population tripled. Government and relief agency officials then tried to encourage the new settlers to return to their traditional homelands by bringing food to these areas. But the nomads -- weakened by hunger and without the livestock they live on -- refused to budge.

Food is now said to be on its way to Tokar. But some officials are worried that the shipments could create as many problems as they solve. News that food is obtainable often travels faster than the aid itself in this desolate area, and it is likely to draw many more hungry out of the hills and into already-overburdened settlements where there are water shortages, overcrowding, and unemployment.

Similar dilemmas confound relief workers in Sudan's western provinces, Kordofan and Darfur. Aly Jumar, director of the Department of Pastro-Nomadic Affairs in Kordofan, estimates that 1.2 million people there have been displaced by the drought. He adds: ``They have superimposed their problems on the rest of the province's population.'' The scarcity of water and rangeland has led to intertribal conflicts among nomads who travel through the province, and tensions have flared between townspeople and the displaced who camp on the edge of towns looking for food and work.

For those who make it to established camps, food is available. The US Agency for International Development, CARE, and the Sudanese government have been stockpiling grain at feeding centers around the province since last summer.

Maasher el Ghaba -- an encampment of 45,000 nomads on the outskirts of El Obeid -- is a tribute to their efforts. A recent UNICEF report called the camp ``a model that other UN and nongovernmental organizations should learn from.'' Sorghum and some vegetables are distributed twice weekly to the sheikhs of several tribes settled there. These leaders then pass the food on to their families. Half of the children on the camp are also receiving an intensive feeding of high-energy porridge twice a day. The camp is remarkably clean.

Looking beyond the current food cisis, aid officials are trying to avoid transforming emergency feeding centers like Tokar and Maasher el Ghaba into permanent settlements of people dependent on Western aid.

Rehabilitating and resettling the displaced persons in their traditional homelands is the long-term goal. Aid agencies are preparing to replenish depleted livestock herds and supply farmers with the seed they need to become self-sufficient once again. The hope is that this aid, coupled with summer rains, will draw the displaced back to their homes and a new start on life.

But without the cooperation of nature and the international community, returning home is just not an option for those Sudanese displaced by the drought. The result, fears Samir Basta, UNICEF's director for Sudan, could be that ``a whole life style is disappearing'' for millions here -- particularly the nomads who have no money and no way to make a living without their herds.

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