POCHALLA, SUDAN — Ajulu Omot and her six children sat beneath a tree with the few belongings they had managed to salvage from the flooded Akobo River: several pots, two animal skins, and a traditional Anyuak pipe.
When the water surrounded their grass house, drowning their livestock, and submerging their cornfield, they waded through shoulder-high water hoping to find help in the main town of Pochalla.
Across an area of 700 square miles in this remote part of southern Sudan close to the Ethiopian border, an estimated 15,000 people have been cut off by the worst flooding in more than 30 years.
With heavier rains expected in July and August, the lives of up to 45,000 people - the population of the Anyuak tribe in the area - are at risk.
While international relief agencies are very concerned, the bitter politics of a long civil war are preventing them from responding.
In March, Pochalla was captured by John Garang's Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), a largely Christian rebel group that has been fighting a civil war against the Islamic fundamentalist government in the capital, Khartoum, for 14 years.
In capturing Pochalla, the SPLA seized vast amounts of sophisticated weaponry from the fleeing government forces. Khartoum has retaliated by denying clearance for aid agencies to fly there.
"Really, I can't do anything," explains Khuol Manyang, the rebel-appointed governor of the area. "I sent stronger people to try to rescue those who are cut off, but I don't have any food here, and the weak can't walk through such deep water."
THE 40 relief agencies working under the United Nations' umbrella organization, Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS), based in northwestern Kenya, are obliged to accept Khartoum's decision as a UN member state. "We have requested clearance to land in Pochalla and we are still waiting," said Pierce Gerety, coordinator of OLS. "If nothing is done we are facing a humanitarian disaster, that's for sure."
Approval to land in more than 140 locations is requested by OLS on a monthly basis. Last month, Khartoum denied access to 15 locations, which included the areas of most critical humanitarian need under rebel control.
Since the SPLA launched its first successful offensive in four years last October, capturing a swath of territory in Eastern Equatoria and pushing into other government-held areas, Khartoum has reacted by issuing a growing number of denials for flights to strategic places. It has also banned the use of large-capacity aircraft, which is the only means of delivering the quantities of food needed to vulnerable areas. In May and June, the UN's World Food Program managed to deliver only 14 percent of the assessed food needs in the south. UN officials say the major problems were the lack of a large aircraft and denial of access.
Seeing their recent military victories being undermined on the humanitarian battlefield, the rebels' attitude is also hardening.
"Our people are dying from floods in Pochalla and hunger in Bahr-el-Ghazal, and OLS is doing nothing. If they are unable to save lives, they should get out," said Mario Muor Muor, secretary general of the rebels' humanitarian arm, the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association. "We may be compelled to bring our own pressure. Khartoum should know that the SPLA has the capacity to bring down a plane or stop a barge going to a government-held town. We don't want to use food as a weapon, but they must be made to see sense," he warned.