It is known simply as Kilo Eight. A sprawling desert ``mawgif'' or truck park, Kilo Eight lies at the base of the Red Sea Hills and about five miles from Port Sudan.
At any one time as many as 1,000 vehicles can be found encamped here, along Sudan's only all-weather road from the coast to its vast interior.
Amid the roar of engines, drifting exhaust smoke, and cooking fires, long lines of trucks and trailers file slowly past the fuel pumps, drinking in the precious commodity for their arduous hauls inland. Others, loaded and ready to leave, wait in lines outside the police checkpoints, the last phase of a long bureaucratic process required before vehicles hit the road.
``Kilo Eight is the main staging area for Sudan where everything is finally loaded, fueled, and dispatched,'' says CARE's John Britton, a bearded young relief coordinator from New Jersey.
For Sudan, Africa's largest country, an estimated 85 percent of its total intake -- imports as well as famine relief -- must come through Port Sudan, the nation's sole functioning harbor.
More than half this intake, mainly food commodities, is destined for refugee and famine relief programs in Eritrea and Tigre in neighboring Ethiopia, as well as in affected parts of Sudan.
A cursory glance at a map illustrates how logistically precarious this situation is. Although some supplies are brought in from Kenya to the south, Egypt to the north, or by rail from Port Sudan, the paved highway from the Red Sea represents Khartoum's main communications link with the outside world. But even this has begun to deteriorate because of the wear and tear of traffic.
``In effect, this road serves as [Sudan's] lifeline. Without it, it would collapse,'' Mr. Britton observes.
Since late January, CARE has acted as operational partner to the Khartoum government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
CARE is responsible for organizing and monitoring food shipments, and more recently non-food items, directly from the port to more than 500,000 Ethiopian refugees in the camps of Sudan's semiarid Eastern region. At the same time, CARE is coordinating relief assistance for United States aid to Sudanese famine victims in Kordofan and Kassala provinces.
Although certain voluntary agencies are running their own supplementary food programs, Britton and his assistant, Sylvano Guerrero from Belize, are faced with the overwhelming task of ensuring that the right amount of food is distributed to the right area at the right time.
In a sense, channeling food to refugee camps in the east is somewhat less daunting than getting it to the more distant relief areas in western Sudan.
``Fortunately, the main highway from Port Sudan goes through Kassala, Showak, and Gedaraf, where most of the camps are situated, or are at least not too far away. This means that most of our trucks can make the journey there and back in two days,'' Britton explains.
Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine the massive logistical organization behind such an operation. ``For some reason,'' Britton adds, ``people don't like to see their money used for trucks and fuel, although both are essential to keeping refugees alive.''
During the initial stages of the refugee emergency, which began to escalate last November, severe food shortages arose. According to some sources within UNHCR, they were largely due to the lack of proper contingency planning on the part of UNHCR. Substantial amounts of supplies had to be airlifted directly to Kassala from Europe until the first shipments began to reach Port Sudan in January.
Since then, food distribution has improved steadily. It is now at roughly 9,000 tons a month. ``When we first started,'' recalls Britton, ``it was an absolute nightmare. We were totally dependent on the Sudanese government for fuel, which sometimes meant delays of up to three weeks.'' Last April, CARE and UNHCR signed an agreement with Shell Oil Company for 3,000 metric tons of fuel.
``We were feeling pretty relieved, but then I woke up one morning and realized that meant putting in a gas station,'' he laughs. CARE now operates four pumps for refugee supply trucks only, a move that promises to keep the food shipments rolling.
But critical obstacles remain. For one, the hiring of trucks is a matter of tough competition. ``There is a limited supply and we are competing against other aid programs . . . or the cross-border feeding operations, as well as local commercial industries,'' Britton explains. ``All this has caused transport prices to more than double and has just made things a lot more difficult. On any given day we are all out there in the souk [market] looking for trucks to hire.''
Through the Shell agreement, however, CARE has obtained a certain degree of leverage.
``Now that we have our own fuel supplies, we can offer the added incentive of loading and fueling on the same day,'' says Mr. Guerrero, who runs CARE's small downtown transport office from which he dispatches between 50 to 90 trucks daily.
By late morning, when loading of the trucks has been completed, a bevy of noisy drivers can be found besieging Guerrero's office for their travel documents.
CARE is furnishing the camps with 10-day ``packages'' (cereals, pulse, oil, sugar, etc.) to ensure the daily minimum of 200 metric tons. ``On good days, we can load between 400 and 1,000 tons a day,'' says Britton as he charges around the port in a four-wheel-drive vehicle to inspect loading operations. Efforts are being made to build up adequate stocks for the rainy season, which has already begun in many areas.
Many of CARE's activities in Port Sudan have been facilitated by the port authorities themselves. Customs officials are prepared to rush through relief imports simply based on UNHCR letters of guarantee.
Yet, with such a high proportion of aid supplies coming in, the port is losing substantial revenue by not levying import charges.
Ultimately, even if CARE succeeds in establishing the smoothly-run operation it is aiming for (something it has already achieved in the Somalia refugee program), Port Sudan is only one aspect of the problem. Ultimate success will depend on continued outside assistance and better logistics in the interior.