Aid quagmire in Sudan. Relief groups press US to break government's barriers to aid flow

Concern is mounting in the United States about the massive civilian suffering caused by Sudan's bitter civil war. ``This is a situation of genocide whether it's called that or not,'' says Peter Davies, president of Interaction, a coalition of private US humanitarian and development agencies.

``A whole sector of Sudan's population is being lost,'' he says. The deeply rooted conflict pits the government, based in the northern part of the country, against rebels based in the South.

``Each side has used food as a weapon,'' Mr. Davies says and ``without international pressure we are convinced'' that neither the government nor the rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) ``will let the food get to those who need it'' in the war zone.

US private relief officials and congressional activists are pressing the US administration to do more to supply the needy. They say the situation in Sudan is as bad or worse than the 1984-85 famine in neighboring Ethiopia.

Some critics say the US has sheltered the government of Sudan too much and accuse that government of purposefully neglecting civilian refugees.

US officials share the rising concern about the civilian victims of the war. They are privately pressing Sudan's government for action. But they say both sides share the blame for abuses of civilians and blocking relief aid. Nor do they accept charges that Sudan's government is purposefully letting people starve.

``A tragedy it is, but a scandal it is not,'' says a ranking US specialist. ``We don't believe this is an organized policy of depopulating the South.''

US officials admit the current Sudanese government has been irresolute and ambivalent on key questions. It is, however, one of the rare democracies in Africa or the Islamic world, they say.

``We aren't in the business of changing democratically elected governments and this is a democratic government warts and all,'' says a well-informed US official.

However, officials admit they, too, are frustrated.

``The two parties here are very recalcitrant,'' says an official who has been working on the problem since 1984. ``Our ambassador has raised all of these points over and over with the government there. We're still struggling with it.''

No young children left alive

The civil war pits the rebels from the largely black and Christian or animist South of Sudan against the government in the mostly Arab and Islamic North.

This round of the fighting began in 1983, when Sudan's previous leader reversed agreements that settled the earlier North-South war in the early 1970s. He began to impose Islamic law and limit the political autonomy of the economically less-developed South.

Estimates range up to 250,000 civilians dead this year, mostly from famine or disease while trying to flee the conflict. An estimated 1.5 million people are currently displaced by the war inside Sudan, and about 350,000 have fled to Ethiopia, which supports the antigovernment SPLA forces.

But no one knows the actual numbers involved. Much of the troubled region is inaccessible because of the war and lack of development.

Women and young children have apparently suffered the most from the disaster. Reports from refugee camps say no children under 2 to 3 years old are left alive and practically only boys survive under the age of 5, because parents give the males food first. Of those making long treks to refugee centers, relief officials estimate that between 40 and 75 percent die en route. Others are subject to kidnapping and rape by armed bands.

``This is far beyond an emergency,'' says Jeffrey Clark, a congressional aide who recently toured several refugee centers. ``It's an absolute famine .... What we saw was very horrifying ... beyond comprehension.''

Government seen as obstacle to aid

There is a consensus in Washington that the situation is tragic, man-made, and extremely complex. The food is available to help those in need, but both sides have blocked efforts deliver the food.

Private relief officials and congressional activists are focusing on the Sudanese government because of the large number of civilians in desperate need who have fled to government-controlled areas. The US also has more influence with the government than the rebels.

Not only do these activists fault the government's hesitancy to let outside relief groups deliver aid to those civilians, but they cite numerous reports of inefficient or corrupt officials neglecting and mistreating the Southerners.

``This is a very complex situation, with many factors involved, but right now the government is the ultimate obstacle'' to meeting the needs of displaced southerners, says Mr. Clark, a professional staff member of the Select Committee on Hunger of the House of Representatives.

Clark says he and his colleagues returned from Sudan with the clear impression that Sudan's government is ``quite happy to see these people die off.'' Stephen Morrison of the House Africa subcommittee says he and the other visiting Americans heard authoritative reports of government officials ``sitting on their hands'' while thousands of children died of disease and starvation in government-controlled southern towns in recent months and of rampages by government-armed militiamen.

One relief official working in Khartoum, Sudan's capital, recently cabled his home office that unless the US and other Western donors ``take a truly strong stand'' with the Sudanese government, it ``will continue to frustrate serious attempts at large-scale relief and is comfortable with the status quo - with the southern population withering away month by month.''

In response to pleas by humanitarian groups to win access to conflict areas, the State Department issued a major public statement that in part urged ``both sides of the war and the friends of Sudan to participate in a massive and urgent effort to end the suffering and starvation of civilians'' in the South.

Privately, the US also again urged the Sudanese government to act and reportedly warned that more serious international rebuke could follow.

Congressional critics say the US statement was not enough. Mr. Morrison of the House Africa subcommittee and Mr. Clark of the Hunger committee argue the US is being too protective of Sudan's government.

``We've had two years to judge this Sudanese administration and in that time we've seen one of the worst outcomes'' as far as caring for the refugees, Morrison says. ``We have unused influence ... $110 million a year in multilateral and bilateral development assistance that Sudan needs.''

These comments may well be followed by action. In recent months, Congress froze US economic aid to Somalia because of alleged human rights abuses during fighting there and passed a resolution threatening a similar move on Burundi, if that government did not take certain human rights steps.

Morrison and Clark say the US must act quickly and be prepared to lead an international relief effort. ``Thousands in the camps now are still close to the edge and we were told tens of thousands more refugees are still believed on the way,'' Morrison says.

A regime plagued by corruption

Administration officials say the situation has to be viewed in its untidy and often irrational complexity.

There have been many abuses, ``stupid decisions,'' and errors on the government side, they say. Most of these have been ``sins of omission,'' says a well-placed official, but others raise serious questions about the government's intentions.

Since last spring, US diplomats have persistently urged the government in private to stop abuses and put its house in order. But there are limits to what the US can demand and still have influence, officials say. In addition, they point out, the current democratic government is shaky, buffeted by Islamic radicals at home and dangerous neighbors such as Libya and Marxist Ethiopia.

The regime is working in a seriously fragmented political system, they say, with an economy that is in shambles and with all the shortcomings of corruption and ineptitude which plague many third-world governments.

Unfortunately, one specialist says, ``democracy in the Sudan is a prescription for deadlock; a coalition government plagued by divisions, delay, and errors.'' A political solution will probably require a major shift to a federal or confederal system, he suggests. So far, he adds, the statesmanship needed to bring about such a transformation has not been evident.

There are legitimate southern grievances that the government needs to address, another specialist says, but the rebel SPLA fully shares the blame for the current tragedy. It has attacked relief convoys and aircraft and carried the war to civilians, as well as missing political opportunities for peace.

``We've had a great difficulty getting a coherent political agenda out of either side,'' says one well-placed official. ``We've offered to get involved but neither side was interested.''

On top of this, the dimensions of the relief problems are almost overwhelming, specialists say. Southern Sudan is a Texas-sized area with very few roads, has a swamp the size of some US states, and is far from the sea. ``Bangladesh and Eritrea [in Ethiopia] were easy shots compared to this,'' says one US specialist. ``It's no surprise we're hearing recriminations when the logistics are so mind-boggling.''

Cease-fire gains support

There are some hopeful developments.

After almost a year of negotiations, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is beginning relief flights to some rebel-held sites and is completing arrangements to fly into government-controlled areas. US officials have pushed hard for this. They hope the Red Cross relief program will serve as a basis for allowing more humanitarian agencies into war-ravaged areas on both sides.

Another hopeful sign, US officials and congressional aides say, is the Nov. 15 cease-fire accord between the SPLA and one of the three government coalition parties. Last week, the prime minister's Umma party added its support. Informed diplomats say Sudan's military and war-weary civilians are also behind the accord. The war is largely stalemated and reportedly costs $1 million a day.

However, the third faction in the coalition - the powerful National Islamic Front - opposes the accord because it would roll back the imposition of Islamic law. Supporters and opponents of the accord fought in the streets of Khartoum last week. This demonstrates, diplomats say, some of the many difficulties that could scuttle the proposed cease-fire and constitutional convention, which would be held in late December under the tentative agreement.

A cease-fire would allow more relief agencies to move into the war zone quickly, specialists say. But, ``if the cease-fire plan doesn't work, if we go back to war, if the ICRC effort fails, the consequences for those in need are awful to contemplate,'' says a ranking US official.

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