After the floods, starvation on the rise in southern Sudan. Locust infestation and ongoing war add to region's woes

One after another, tiny skeletal silhouettes pause in the bright doorway of the crude, leafy shelter in this camp for nearly four thousand Sudanese fleeing civil war and famine in the south. The hot, humid air vibrates with swarms of flies.

Two dozen bone-thin people - mostly women and children of the cattle-herding Dinka tribe - sit on straw mats, listlessly brushing the flies away, as Irish volunteers weigh the most emaciated children to measure their progress under a three-week-old emergency feeding program. Foreign relief workers here say that 70 percent of the children suffer from malnutrition. Thirty percent of the cases are severe.

Civil war in Africa's largest country is grinding into its sixth year. And though the war's antagonists have agreed to peace talks Oct. 25, the battle between the largely Arab government forces of the north and the Sundanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) is increasingly bloody. Additionally, rampant hunger and starvation in the south, the rebels' stronghold, have been made worse by a plague of locusts and the government's inability to deal with August's devastating floods, which cut off communications and delayed food distribution.

The SPLA, led by the United States-educated Col. John Garang, is fighting for greater autonomy and a larger piece of the national economic pie for southern Sudanese, who are mostly non-Muslim black Africans.

Years of instability and violence in the south, compounded by a long period of drought, have ravaged a region once exploited by Arab slave-traders, and left undeveloped by colonial and post-independence rulers.

``All services have broken down,'' said Cole Dodge, UNICEF's representative in Sudan. ``Infant mortality has probably risen from a prewar level of 180 per 1000 live births to over 250 in the last two to three years.''

Relief workers in El Muglad and in Khartoum, the capital, say that 60 miles south of here, in the remote town of El Meiran, conditions are even worse. The town's proximity to the unofficial north-south border and its supply of donated food have drawn scores of southern refugees.

Last June, when the Paris-based M'edecins Sans Fronti`eres (MSF) began working with displaced southerners in El Meiran, the refugee population there numbered 6,000.

But as early as July, relief workers saw trouble coming. Heavy rains began making the dirt roads impassable even to tractors. At the same time, the number of Dinka women and children looking for food and security began to rise rapidly.

For several weeks over the summer, the population of displaced southerners in El Meiran - which shot up to 26,000 in a matter of weeks - was without food.

``By the fourth of August, the weekly death rate was the highest MSF had ever recorded in any of its programs around the world,'' he said. ``That was even higher than we recorded in Korem camp, at the height of the 1984-85 Ethiopian famine.''

Two hundred people are now dying each week in El Meiran, although several long-overdue trainloads of donated food have helped reduce the death rate from its alarming high of 475 in five days last July. But the rainy season will end in the next few weeks and relief workers expect many already emaciated people will begin moving in search of food as the roads dry up.

International aid officials claim that there has been enough donor food on hand in Sudan to meet the immediate needs in El Meiran and El Muglad. The problem has been moving the food from a warehouse to the railroad depot in Babanusa, where trains set off for points south.

These officials and local Sudanese authorities fear that thousands more face starvation further south, in places like Abyei, Aweil and Wau, which are cut off for security reasons from international relief assistance.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has a fleet of planes, crews, and stocks of food waiting to fly into several locations which it has identified in its emergency relief plan. Last month, the government of Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi approved the ICRC plan to provide assistance to six areas of the south - three under government control, and three under the SPLA.

This week the rebels agreed to food relief for the south only if they controlled distribution - something the ICRC, by policy, would not agree to.

Meanwhile, in response to Mr. Mahdi's appeal for international assistance, United Nations officials are in Sudan to assess the needs and potential programs.

Additionally, there appears to be slight movement toward peace negotiations. Reports this week indicate Mahdi and Mr. Garang have arranged to meet on Oct. 25. Mahdi also this week reportedly stepped back from his intent to carry out some form of Sharia, Islamic law, a policy which the SPLA staunchly opposes.

Sudanese officials claim that the SPLA's inability to care for the people in its areas contributes to the current crisis. But the government inspector in El Muglad blamed an official policy of arming local Arab militias.

Officials say the policy of arming civilians is purely so that villagers can protect themselves from the SPLA. Critics say it is nothing more than a way of creating civilian militias to back the government. Eyewitnesses attribute an escalation in violence in the south to these local militias, which they say attack civilians at will, outside the control of the government's Army.

Militia assaults on Dinka and other nilotic people - including rape, cattle-robbery, and abduction into slavery - have been widely documented and criticized by Sudanese scholars from the north, as well as the London-based human rights group Amnesty International.

``In the last two years, about three million cattle were robbed [stolen] by the Arab militia from the Dinka area,'' said Awad Allah el Jak. ``And now, the Dinka don't have anything to eat. They lost their cattle, which is everything they depend upon in their life.''

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