Aid Groups Try To Revive a Town In Remote Sudan

Donor nations and private agencies focus on means of self-sufficiency

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ELEVEN-YEAR-OLD Joseph sits on a narrow wooden bench with several other boys in a nearly bare classroom at St. Mary's School. This windowless, doorless school is located in one of the poorest and most remote sections of Africa.

Wearing the only clothing he has - an old pair of underpants - Joseph tells a visitor: ``I'm poor. I'm not in school.'' But, he adds quietly, he wants to go to school.

Cut off from much of the outside world by civil war, life in this small town in southwestern Sudan has reverted in part to what it probably was like a century ago: People here operate more on a barter rather than a money economy.

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Basic goods such as salt, soap, and clothing are rare. Loincloths and skirts of leaves are common. Many parents are too ashamed of their childrens' nakedness to send them to school. And there is not a single doctor for the more than 100,000 people in the area.

Now the United States, United Nations, and other donors are showing increased interest in helping people such as Joseph and his family, stuck in war and famine zones, get back on their feet, economically and socially.

The idea of self-sufficiency is not new, says Philip O'Brien, who heads UNICEF's relief program for southern Sudan. ``What is new is we see it as something that has an increasing importance.''

Donor countries, many of which have been hit by recessions, are feeling the pinch while trying to respond to numerous world disasters - from Sudan and Somalia to the former Yugoslavia. Emergency food relief, often delivered by airplane, is extremely expensive.

Providing seeds, tools, cattle, vaccines, and fishing supplies to help people feed themselves is much cheaper and often hastens the day when emergency rations are no longer needed, Mr. O'Brien says.

IN areas like this one, where people are not starving but where the civil war's disruption has left residents at the point of bare subsistence, relatively inexpensive items can help restore a shattered society, according to UN, US, and private relief officials.

``We start small,'' says Jerry McCarthy, team leader here for CARE, a US-based relief and rehabilitation agency. ``What we have to do is kick-start the local economy.''

Among other services, CARE provides: cloth and sewing machines to make clothing for children so that they can attend school; bicycles to help farmers get crops to distant markets; seeds and tools to boost food production.

Since the area is cut off from most outside markets, CARE also plans to buy surplus crops and use them as payment to local residents for doing road repair and other development work in the area.

``What we are trying to do here is grass-roots empowerment of people to regain their self-sufficiency,'' says Gordon Wagner of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which has provided an initial $500,000 to CARE for work in this area.

In the quieter corners of southern Sudan where the war is not very active, ``we need to push for production possibilities,'' he added while on a recent visit here.

Donors are making a similar push in Somalia, where famine has been overcome, and fighting has died down in many areas. ``We're going to work where we can,'' another USAID official says of the economic and social assitance planned for Somalia.

But such aid will only flow to areas where there is no fighting, the official adds. ``People are only going to take so many risks.''

The current phase of Sudan's civil war began in 1983, with rebels in the south seeking greater political power in Sudan, and later, freedom from Islamic laws imposed by the northern Arab government. When rebels captured Tambura in 1990, tens of thousands of people fled to the bush or the neighboring Central African Republic or Zaire.

Joseph says his family's clothing and most of their other possessions ``were stolen when we were running from the war.'' Bandits, rebels, or government soldiers were the likely culprits.

Gradually, many who fled returned to their farms. But the uncertainty of attacks by the Sudan military, continuing robberies, and the lack of outside aid has left them living at a subsistence level.

``In our house we have one blanket - from CARE,'' says a local resident. ``I gave it to the smallest children.'' The mosquitoes, he adds, are ``terrible.'' Many people lost their mosquito nets while fleeing the area.

``Peace is the priority to everything,'' says Bandindi Pascal Uru, secretary in this area for the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association, a branch of the rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army, which now controls the area.

``When peace comes - boom, [the economy] takes off,'' he predicts of the economy.

The SPLA is at war with the Islamic government in Khartoum over greater political clout for the south and freedom from Islamic law.

Tambura's SPLA Commander, David Manyok, complains of disinterest from most donors until CARE arrived. (The French chapter of Doctors Without Borders has also provided help here.)

``It's been almost three years since the area was `liberated,' and we've seen no help,'' he says. ``But if the world ignores us, we can survive. We've been fighting for 10 years.''

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