Plight of Sudan's `displaced' people: `illegal residents' in their own land

ACHONG Deng and her family live next to a garbage dump in a cardboard hut covered with burlap bags. When it rains, the roof leaks and the eight who live in the hut get little sleep as they lie on cardboard mats on the wet ground.

But Mrs. Deng's problems run deeper than a leaky roof, no running water or electricity, and her husband's bare-survival-level income. Four years ago, when she and her family fled war in southern Sudan, they fled in the wrong direction - at least for finding a helping hand in their new location.

The Dengs belong to the world's growing ``displaced'' population - people who are uprooted by war, famine, or natural disasters but stay within their countries' borders.

Because they are not ``refugees'' - those that flee across borders because they fear racial, religious, political, or social persecution - they are not eligible for food, medical care, and shelter from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Other agencies that help illegal aliens and refugees are reluctant to offer assistance for fear of infringing on the sovereignty of host countries. The plight of many of the displaced, especially those in war-torn nations, is growing more intractable.

What it means to face near-crushing poverty and be uprooted at the same time, with little help from anyone, can be seen in the cardboard village here. Although the people are courteous to visitors, and children - like children everywhere - play games in the dirt, there is little laughter.

Most of these people were always poor. But they at least had a sense of stability, of routine. Now, memories of happier days on their farms in the distant south, of times with friends, of working their fields and feeding their livestock, fade with each passing day.

These are not, however, helpless or hopeless people.

Deng's husband, like many men here, works as many as 13 hours a day selling water to earn $1. Many of the women and older girls work as servants in Khartoum homes. And in one settlement of displaced persons, those with jobs donate money into a community fund to help the new arrivals, who often have only a few possessions they could carry.

``In this community there is sharing,'' says Paulino Dut, a chief of the settlement.

Somehow these people survive; but their needs are great.

``I have not gotten much food, because I don't have enough money,'' says Deng. Her children ``do not get enough to eat.'' She is standing barefoot inside her hut. Her husband sits nearby on the one bed they have. The only other furniture is a chair and a small table with a few dishes on it. Overhead are two lines with a jumble of clothes hung over them. The living space is dimly lit from a few holes in the cardboard that serve as windows.

In another nearby neighborhood of displaced people, the housing is better. Homes are mud-walled, flat-roofed, in the traditional style of northern Sudan. But a survey earlier this year by the Sudan Council of Churches (SCC) says: ``In the dark recesses of these homes some of the worst cases of malnutriton are found....''

In one such mud-walled neighborhood, there are a few cardboard huts belonging to the latest arrivals. Outside one of these huts, a father, his wife, baby, and adult son sat on a bed. The three of them sat quietly, looking straight ahead. ``I'm very hungry,'' the father said, speaking through an interpreter.

They had arrived just a week earlier from Aweil, a southern town where there have been reports of starvation. Food supplies to the government-held towns in the south have been scarce because the rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army maintains control of the surrounding countryside.

The SCC estimates there are between 200,000 and 250,000 displaced persons now living in the Khartoum area. One half fled the war, a fourth fled famine - which in some cases is related to the war, according to the SCC. Most of the others came seeking jobs.

The SCC has documented malnutrition among at least 20 percent of the children of the displaced. And their survey found child mortality rates among these people was double the national average. ``Really the neglected poor are urban refugees'' such as these, says a UNHCR official here.

Abdul Muhammed, a consultant to the SCC, calls such people the ``suffering silent, internal refugees.''

``If you had an organization specialized in working with the displaced - United Nations or whatever - there would be someone to provide help,'' says Priscilla Joseph, of the SCC. But relief officials say that this might not only result in instances of breeching the sovereignty of a nation, but it might also encourage people to remain displaced and become dependent on that agency - even if the conditions they fled were to improve.

The SCC has begun providing limited medical care to the displaced here. Some latrines have been built and donkey carts for hauling in water have been provided. There are plans to begin supplementary feeding for women and children in about 23 camps that have sprung up for the displaced in the area.

But the Sudanese government is concerned that as the services and provisions become more attractive, more and more people are going to be drawn to the area. It is already hard-pressed to provide minimal care for the residents.

The government considers these people illegal residents. Several times it has used bulldozers to try to demolish some of their homes. In some cases, the displaced have managed to block the destruction, says Dr. Joseph. But more recently the government has allowed some groups, under the SCC's coordination, to provide limited assistance to the displaced.

``Millions of people are being uprooted from their villages,'' says Mr. Muhammed. ``The interplay of drought and war is displacing a significant number of people in Africa as a whole. Their struggle and needs should be brought to greater world attention, especially in this, the United Nations' international year of shelter for the homeless.''

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