Civil war, locusts compound Sudan's food crisis

The granaries of Kassala, Wad Medeni, and Gadaref in sorghum-rich eastern Sudan are full. But 600 miles south, in the Narus refugee camp, children and adults await what seems certain starvation. Dozens of children die weekly in the rebel-controlled refugee camp. They are the children of Toposa nomads who trekked for days across the battle and famine fields of southern Sudan to reach the relative safety of Narus.

The once proud and cattle-wealthy tribesmen are among an estimated 2 million southern Sudanese threatened with starvation.

The tragic irony is that Sudan, Africa's largest country, and one of the world's poorest, has a 580,000 ton grain surplus, but cannot transport it from the growing regions of the north and east.

Even if the financially strapped government could find funds to pay for food transport (and many observers say it cannot), the southern area is inaccessible because of the three-year civil war between Christian-led rebels of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and troops loyal to the Islamic government.

Relief agencies, too, face serious logistical problems, as the consortium of international donors organizing ``Operation Rainbow'' recently discovered. The million-dollar operation was set up in mid-September to airlift emergency food to the south, but it was not until Oct. 12 that the first aircraft of the operation finally took off. The southern region had been almost entirely cutoff since mid-August after the SPLA shot down a civilian airplane.

Operation Rainbow had been trying to get a food truce from both sides so that it could operate safely in government and rebel-held areas. It originally struck a deal with the rebels to take food to the southwestern garrison town of Wau and to SPLA-held Yirol. But the Khartoum government opposed the deal, viewing it as a threat to its sovereignty over the largely rebel-controlled south. Sudan's prime minister insisted that food stockpiled in Khartoum by the organizers should be flown to the southern provincial capital of Juba and the small town of Malakal, both controlled by government forces.

The rebels backed out of their agreement saying that they had not agreed to a one-sided relief plan, and the airlift was postponed for several weeks following SPLA threats to down more aircrafts.

Early last week, grain was flown into Juba and into Isiro in Zaire, from which Operation Rainbow will convoy the food relief, presumably to government-held towns only. The SPLA continues to threaten to stop the transport.

The UN now says that 232 tons of food and medicine has reached Juba and Isiro.

In most southern towns there is little or no food left. In and around Wau, relief workers do not have fuel to distribute the remaining food. Many towns in southern Sudan have received very few relief supplies since the beginning of the year.

Sudan's crisis is further aggravated by the recent appearance of the voracious desert and African migratory locusts in the eastern Kassala province. The insects swarmed in from Ethiopia, where spraying and monitoring are impossible because of the 25-year guerrilla war.

Elsewhere in Africa, rain has provided breeding grounds for millions of locusts and grasshoppers. But earlier fears of a plague of biblical proportions that would decimate crops in large parts of the continent have not been fulfilled. Subsequent conditions have not been as favorable for insect development as was feared, and a Western-backed $35 million control campaign is underway. But relief officials warn much depends on how many eggs have been laid and the rainfall patterns of the next two months.

The major threat is in Botswana, where a brown locust plague is entering its second year and could spread to Angola, Namibia (South West Africa), Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Swaziland, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization reports.

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