Only Lasting Relief for Sudan Famine Is Peace

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Lual Agok is a toddler who has the face of an old man. He lies wrapped in sacking, wizened by hunger.

Guer Angok is in his sunset years. Chevrons on his forehead mark the rite of passage through Dinka life. In normal times he would be instructing warrior youths. But he sits naked like a helpless toddler on waterproof sheeting in a feeding center waiting for a cup of porridge.

This is the face of famine in southern Sudan where nothing is as it should be: children are denied a future, adults deprived of their livelihood, the old robbed of their past. These are not a helpless or hopeless people. Yet it has taken 1.2 million people facing starvation to focus the spotlight on this forgotten crisis.

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Ironically, they face starvation not because they're poor, but because they're rich in resources like oil. The Dinka are no strangers to hunger. In normal times they're pastoralists who herd cattle and plant subsistence crops. They've learned to cope with drought and the 15-year civil war. Tall, elegant figures who move fluidly over the arid, featureless plains in oppressive heat, they signal hardiness and resilience. But this year they were pushed over the edge.

Simply put, the Islamic fundamentalist government in the north turned up the heat in its fight against and Christian south. Stalemated on the battlefield with the rebel southern Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the government of Sudan is waging war on the civilian population in the south.

Some, like Dan Eiffe of Norwegian People's Aid - who's worked in southern Sudan for 20 years - call the government's tactics nothing less than genocide and ethnic cleansing.

The UN's Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS), at first blinded by the government to the unfolding crisis, was tragically slow to act. The result is hundreds, if not thousands, dead from starvation, says Jeff Drumtra, Africa analyst at the US Committee for Refugees. And, he adds, thousands more are likely to die because not enough food is getting into the country. Bluntly put, the famine is man-made. The government wants the land without the people. And they aren't afraid to use hunger and food as weapons in that war - even against innocent women, children, and the elderly. They also want to secure the Bentiu oil fields. If an eventual peace settlement provides some autonomy to the south or even divides the country in two, Khartoum wants to push the border as far south as possible to exploit the oil.

The first sign of the government's intention came in January. Intensified fighting in and around the government garrison town of Wau forced 350,000 people into the countryside in just 24 hours.

Khartoum used the fighting in Wau to impose a two-month flight ban on all humanitarian aid. It blinded the UN's World Food Program and the nongovernmental organizations to a crisis that was turning into a catastrophe of proportions not seen since the 1984-85 Ethiopian famine.

Since 1983, 2 million people have died from the effects of the war, and 4 million more have been displaced. People foraged for leaves and wild fruits in January, foods they usually fall back on in the lean pre-harvest months between April and August. It was an unnoticed red flag.

By the time the government lifted the flight ban in April, whole communities needed feeding if mass starvation was to be avoided. Not just 350,000, but 700,000 were in dire need of food. And now, the WFP says 1.2 million face starvation in the rebel-held areas of the south.

The opaque language of the UN became transparent. Finally "famine" replaced "pre-famine," and "hunger gap" became an embarrassing understatement. But such advocacy aid agencies as World Vision, NPA and Doctors Without Borders admit it was too little too late. By April the rains had come. The only way to move the massive quantities of food needed was to airlift it. That upped the price from $200 a ton to $2,000 per ton.

Then there are the bombs. From January to June the government of Sudan launched 28 bombing raids on feeding centers, hospitals, clusters of displaced people, and aid projects. There are no military targets in the areas hit. Nor are any of the centers close to the front line.

"It's nothing short of murder," says Bruce Mencer, World Vision's Sudan head.

The SPLA are not innocent bystanders. A favored southern warlord, Kerubino Bol, pillaged and plundered huge swaths of Bahr el Ghazal - the heartland of the Dinka who support the rebels - in raids that appeared designed to cause famine and hardship. The SPLA is accused by Human Rights Watch of manipulating the civilian population with the use of food in the early 1990s.

Ultimately only peace can bring an end to the suffering. In the short term there needs to be a massive and sustained humanitarian relief effort channeled through OLS. Organizations like Norwegian People's Aid - that operate outside OLS - need to be bolstered so that the government doesn't have a stranglehold on aid flows. And the US needs to push the parties to end the war and address its root causes.

* Hilary Mackenzie, a reporter for the Canadian monthly Saturday Night, was in Sudan in June.

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