Southern Sudan is in the grip of a famine whose scale could equal the disaster that struck Ethiopia in 1984. This time, however, the forces in play are man-made. A civil war in the region threatens the 5.3 million people who live there with starvation.
The worst fighting in four years of civil war has disrupted planting and forced tens of thousands of subsistence farmers and herdsmen to flee their villages. Emergency food operations have been suspended because aid workers' lives are endangered.
Guerrillas from the south, inhabited largely by Christians and animists, are fighting government troops, largely recruited from Sudan's majority Muslim Arabs of the north. The 25,000-man Sudan People's Liberation Army is fighting for regional autonomy, a greater share of the economic development pie, and an end to Islamic law. The SPLA has vowed to destroy any transport, including relief supplies, trying to pass through the area.
Western agencies have been operating relief programs in southern Sudan for several years. In late 1985, intense fighting brought operations to a virtual halt. For the first half of this year, relief agencies and the UN worked to gain ``safety passage'' agreements from Sudan's Army and the SPLA. Finally, in June, a few agencies gained tacit agreements that they could pass safely. By this time, however, the needs in the south had grown so great that the agencies organized emergency airlift operations.
In late July, fighting, particularly in the areas surrounding Juba, intensified -- some programs were suspended and landing at Juba airport became impossible. Last week the UN World Food Program, the primary supplier of food relief to the south, suspended -- unannounced -- its shipments to the area and evacuated all personnel. On Saturday, the SPLA used a surface-to-air missile to down a civilian airplane as it left Malakal airport. There were no survivors.
The rebels are now refusing to give aid agencies access to famine areas, because they say the food sent in helps government forces. They have warned civilians to leave four major southern towns -- Juba, Wau, Malakal, and Bentiu.
Aid officials say the number of southern Sudanese facing starvation is about 2 million. But this is only a guess. An influx of Ethiopian and Ugandan refugees as well as the movement of the Sudanese themselves makes estimations difficult.
The topography of southern Sudan is characterized by swamp, savanna, and tropical forests. Almost twice the size of Texas, it is one of the least developed regions in the world.
There are few roads in the region, and none are paved. The southern capital of Juba has the only airport with an asphalt runway. Southern Sudan depends on neighboring Kenya and Uganda for its imports which are trucked over land on rutted dirt tracks. But the route is seasonal, because roads become virtually impassable during the May-to-August rainy season.
Connections with the northern part of the country are even more fragile. The Nile River provides a lifeline with the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, but river barges are subject to rebel attacks. A railway from the north terminates at the provincial capital of Wau.
Since the downing of the Sudan Airways plane at Malakal, relief efforts have been halted. The International Committee of the Red Cross has had to abort an airlift operation that was launched Aug. 14 to fly 300 tons of grain from Entebbe, Uganda, to besieged Wau.
Red Cross officials had been negotiating with the SPLA for safe air passage of 1,000 more tons of grain at El Obeid in northern Sudan and 256 tons at Entebbe. This is now highly unlikely.
Six hundred tons of grain stocked at Wau by World Vision earlier in the year have almost run out. A 50-truck World Food Program convoy carrying 1,500 tons of grain is waiting at Nimule for a military convoy to escort it to Juba. In June, armed men ambushed a relief convoy heading for Juba, killing eight Kenyan drivers. And a Band Aid worker was killed when a military plane was shot down by the SPLA in May.
Meanwhile, time is running out for the Sudanese trapped by the conflict. Recent visitors to the SPLA-controlled refugee camp near the Kenyan border reported that 10 children were dying daily of hunger and malnutrition. The 17,000 people in the camp said they had fled there from marauding government troops.
An estimated 120,000 southern Sudanese have fled to Ethiopia. The refugees are predominantly men of fighting age. Many have fled to escape persecution from both the Army and the rebels. They have been harassed by the military for alleged collaboration with the rebels. The SPLA rounds up male villagers at gunpoint and forces them into guerrilla service. Many also say their villages have been burned, their wives raped, and their cattle stolen by large bands of armed men.
Diplomats based in Khartoum have said that it is difficult to estimate the magnitude of the impending tragedy. The food shortages in the countryside cannot be quantified. But some relief agency statistics indicate that, added to the local populations, there are an estimated 50,000 refugees at Malakal, 170,000 at Wau, and 15,000 at Juba. In all three cities, food supplies are depleted.
Relief agency officials say that chances of averting mass starvation are slim as long as the war continues.
A meeting between the SPLA leader, Col. John Garang, and Sudanese Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi earlier this month ended with no signs that the conflict will be resolved.
The writer was recently in Ethiopia examining the famine and its effects on the region.