WASHINGTON — AS food aid pours into Somalia, United States officials worry that a major humanitarian crisis is building in another East African nation: Sudan.
Drought combined with increased fighting in the country's lengthy civil war has put 1.7 million Sudanese in dire need, largely in the south of the country, according to US government estimates. Unless relief flows more freely soon, several hundred thousand of the most afflicted face starvation.
A United Nations team recently managed to reach the southern city of Kongor for the first time in a year, for instance, and found it transformed into a ghost town. Of its previous 140,000 inhabitants, "fewer than 60 skeletal civilians were found alive, surviving solely on wild foods," according to a US Agency for International Development cable.
Concerted international pressure may be necessary to force the Sudanese government and feuding rebel factions into allowing resumption of aid delivery in the south.
"This is something the Clinton administration is going to have to deal with very fast," says Rep. Frank Wolf (R) of Virginia, a member of the Select Committee on Hunger who visited Sudan earlier this month.
US officials call Sudan the most silent famine in the world today - meaning it is receiving much less attention than comparable humanitarian crises. In recent years cycles of drought, pestilence, and floods in various regions of the huge country have greatly decreased crop and livestock production.
Relief from these natural disasters might have been manageable but for the violence that has riven Sudan for a decade. Christian and animist rebels under the banner of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) have been battling the Muslim-dominated government since 1983, in a war which by one estimate has already taken 600,000 lives.
The SPLA opposes the government's imposition of sharia, or strict Islamic law, on the country.
Pope John Paul II's brief stop in Sudan on Feb. 10 was meant as a show of support for the country's Christian minority. He likened their plight to that of Christ on the cross and called for an end to the country's "terrible harvest of suffering."
There have been long-standing relief programs in Sudan, mounted by the UN as well as private groups. But both the Khartoum government and rebels have blocked aid efforts, forcing UN workers to haggle for access to affected areas. And in recent months a split in the rebel ranks has made the problem acute.
Some 15 months ago the SPLA separated along ethnic lines. One faction, composed largely of the Dinka tribe, wants Sudan to be a unified, secular state. The other main group, headed by the Neur tribe, wants the south to secede and form a new nation.
Secession just would not solve the nation's problems, argues one prominent Sudanese exile. "It would still leave Christians living in the north," says Mohamed Khalil, a former minister of foreign affairs.
"Also there are many Muslims who really do not want this Islamic law."
Last fall three UN aid workers and a photographer were killed in rebel-held areas, and relief efforts have in effect been suspended ever since.
Throughout December and January, US and UN officials have conducted a series of delicate negotiations with the parties involved to obtain guarantees of safe access so food shipments can be resumed.
US officials are crossing their fingers that agreements permitting a tenuous relief lifeline involving barges down the Nile, a rail leg, and numerous truck routes will hold so that shipments can begin again soon.
"The key is access," said James Kunder, head of US AID's office of foreign disaster assistance, at a recent briefing for reporters.
Representative Wolf says he favors establishing a "no-military action zone," a sort of safe haven in the south where refugees can gather and the forces of both sides are prohibited.
He says he visited one village near the Ugandan border, Kajo Kaji, which had recently suffered a daylight bombing raid by government airplanes.
"Since that time the villagers leave during the day. They come back at night. They're just afraid," Wolf says.