Mozambique food crisis deepens as war blocks delivery of aid

One of South Africa's neighbors, Mozambique, faces a deep-ening food crisis caused primarily by civil war. The UN and some United States officials are calling for increased international assistance. But a key challenge is delivering the food.

Some government convoys transferring food to rural towns have been attacked by guerrilla forces of the Mozambique National Resistance Movement (Renamo). A US official estimates that some 2 million people are reached ``only periodically'' by food-relief deliveries because of the fighting.

The dimensions of the crisis are becoming clearer:

The Mozambique government now estimates that some 5 million of its 14 million people are affected. Many have abandoned their homes and must depend on food aid.

As more farmers leave their land to escape the violence of the war, fewer crops are being planted. This intensifies the food crisis, US officials say.

Some 700 health facilities have been destroyed since l981, leaving at least 2 million people without even the most basic health care, according to the United Nations Children's Fund.

Some 350,000 people have fled Mozambique in the past few years, more than 200,000 to South Africa.

``Right now [the situation in Mozambique] is hunger, but it has the potential of turning into famine,'' warns Richard Apodaca, an official with the US Agency for International Development.

Mozambique will need about 610,000 tons of cereal food relief in the current crop year, according to the UN and the government of Mozambique. So far, about three-fourths of that amount has been pledged by donor nations. But only about half the total needed has reached the country, a recent UN report states. The US is supplying some 150,000 metric tons of food grains.

But there are some uncertainties surrounding the situation and the actual food needs.

The international community is operating on the assumption that those in areas not being reached by food-relief convoys are in serious trouble. But a spokesman for the guerrillas claims there is a food surplus in at least some of the areas where guerrillas operate. A US journalist recently back from two of the guerrilla areas says he saw no signs of starvation there. But he was shown only areas chosen by the guerrillas.

One account attributed to a US official in Mozambique is that serious signs of malnutrition have been found in areas where government forces moved in after the guerrillas left.

Government convoys carry food relief to towns and cities in many contested areas. Guerrilla attacks on the convoys occur with some frequency, according to an international relief worker contacted by phone in Maputo, Mozambique's capital.

In some areas, the worker says, ``we do have people starving.'' In others, people nearly ran out of food before convoys got through, he says. Farmers are moving to district and provincial capitals. ``This trend is on the rise,'' he added.

Thomas Schaaf, a spokesman in Washington for Renamo, says such attacks are justified because the convoys are ``military targets.'' He also says that Renamo burns crops ``wherever there is foreign involvement'' in the farms.

Herb Howe, a professor of African politics at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, recently visited Mozambique. He says that ``there is undoubtedly a fair amount of malnutrition and some starvation, especially in the north,'' where the guerrilla forces are strongest.

But the hunger issues were much more severe during the 1984-'85 drought, he says. Recently there have been good rains. The farming system in the nation is in bad shape, Professor Howe says. Transportation to markets is often lacking; there is little incentive for farmers to grow more than subsistence levels because few consumer goods are available to buy, he explains.

``The Mozambique government is in control of the cities and large towns,'' Howe says. ``Much of the countryside is up for grabs: whoever is there controls it,'' he adds.

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