Sudan military accused of pilfering food aid. Relief officials worry missing food will make donors cut back supplies

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

While thousands of people are starving in southern Sudan, some members of the Sudanese military and some private traders allegedly are profiting from the misery. According to informed Sudanese and foreign sources:

The military has stolen or allowed others to steal large portions of some 9,000 tons of Western relief food destined for war and drought victims in the government-held town of Wau, in the south (see map, next page).

Military and local officials probably have ended up with portions of relief food sent up the Nile River on barges to Malakal, also a government-held town in the south.

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Some military people frequently work as ``partners'' with commercial traders, taking a share of profits from the sale of commercial food in some relief areas.

Local traders are hoarding food to drive up prices, and sometimes sharing profits with the Army.

The sources interviewed do not suggest that the government or military has a policy to interfere with food relief. Rather, they charge, some individuals in the military are simply taking advantage of the south's hunger crisis.

During the four years that international relief agencies have provided substantial assistance to Sudan, the military has frequently failed to provide timely delivery of relief food and escorts for the convoys, while at the same time managing to escort shipments of commercial food into relief areas. But Sudanese and international sources here say the allegations about the military actually taking food are of greater concern because they make international officials more hesitant about providing aid.

``It hurts,'' says an international relief official. ``You still want to get food there. A major relief operation is what is required. But it's not possible because of military intervention.''

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization recently reported that, in its assessment, Sudan is the African nation with the greatest food needs.

Sudan's minister of defense, retired Lt. Gen. Abdel Magid Hamid Khalil, said in an interview: ``I assure all the world's organizations that not a single pound of relief will be touched by a soldier.'' He also said he had issued orders to the soldiers to halt any such fraudulent activity.

Still, a significant amount of Western food aid is unaccounted for. Officials of the US Agency for International Development (AID) have received none of the customary followup reports on the delivery of their portion of the Malakal shipments. Nor have they received any answers to requests by US diplomats for information on the missing food destined for Wau, says the international relief official. AID officials here refused to comment on the deliveries on the record.

Bona Malwal, a journalist from the south and a minister in a previous Sudanese government, is a strong critic of the current government. He says Western diplomats are reluctant to pressure the government of Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi - which has courted both the West and its neighbor, Libya - for better monitoring of the food for fear of antagonizing him.

Much of the food intended for Wau apparently never got beyond the town of Raga, which is en route to Wau. It arrived in Raga in June 1987, but much of it ``disappeared'' over the summer, says the foreign relief official.

This official says some 3 to 4 thousand tons were damaged by rain. Of the rest: ``a lot was stolen by civilians. The Army just watched.'' A Sudanese source says the food disappeared at night, when a curfew kept all but the military inside. A Western relief official says: ``We suspect a lot was stolen by the military. All of us have been concerned about it for a long time.''

Some of the food that did reach Wau was sold ``by the Army in collusion with merchants,'' alleges the international relief official. General Khalil called this allegation a `rumor' but offered no details to account for the food.

The two barge convoys with military equipment and relief food intended for Malakal were sent in 1987 and earlier this year. The written reports of the high-level official to whom much of the relief was sent account for only a small portion of it, according to some of the sources interviewed. Some of it may have gone ``to Army outposts'' along the way, says the foreign relief official.

A Sudanese source with knowledge of military activities (but not involved in the allegations against the military) said he is not aware of any on-going military investigation into the foreign aid officials allegations of Army involvement in the missing food.

But the Sudanese Relief and Rehabilitation Commission says it has opened an investigation into the Wau situation. With only 10 relief officials, the RRC ``does its best to get food through'' and is ``upset'' about the missing food.

``Its very, very difficult to get into [these southern] areas, to [deliver] food, much less monitor. You can't hold us to the same monitoring standards'' as those applied in less disrupted nations, says the Western relief official.

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