CIRILO SOKA sits weakly on the ground in front of a makeshift hut, the kind used by nearly 200,000 Sudanese who have fled to this city after rebel attacks on their villages. He is ill, Mr. Soka tells a visitor. He ate only ``a little porridge'' in the morning. And the day before? ``Some leaves of bean plants.'' The refugees' weekly relief rations, distributed from supplies flown into this rebel-encircled city, often last only a few days.
But this week's endorsement of a cease-fire proposal by the newly formed Sudanese Cabinet brings hope of faster food relief to thousands like Soka who face starvation in the south.
Juba, normally a city of about 100,000 residents, is getting about eight cargo-planeloads of corn a day from outside donors. This relief is keeping most people alive - but only barely, say Sudanese and Western relief officials.
Some people are dying of disease brought on or complicated by lack of food, says Gordon Wagner, a representative for Oxfam, a British aid agency.
But Juba is better off than most other southern towns cut off by rebels, where airlifts have been less regular. In a civil war that is approaching its sixth year, the Sudanese People's Liberation Army is fighting for greater autonomy in the south and more influence for southerners in the Khartoum government.
AFTER sustained pressure from the military on Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi to end the war, the new Cabinet on Sunday approved a cease-fire plan originally offered by the SPLA last November. The plan calls for suspending the imposition of sharia (Islamic laws), a key point of contention for the largely non-Muslim southerners.
But reaching a formal cease-fire will likely take time. Meanwhile both the government and the SPLA have agreed to allow safe passage of relief aid to the south.
Obstacles to delivery remain, however. Many key roads are mined, and others could become impassable during the fast-approaching rainy season.
``We feel the answer is still by air,'' says Bob Koepp, coordinator in Nairobi for an airlift to Juba by the Lutheran World Federation and World Council of Churches. The airlift began last November and currently consists of two Hercules C-130 planes making two roundtrips each day between Nairobi and Juba. Pilots land and take off in a tight corkscrew pattern to avoid possible SPLA missile attacks.
The World Food Program and the International Committee of the Red Cross recently began airlifting food to Juba from Uganda. More is needed, relief officials say.
And, says Helena Mayer, a Lutheran World Federation official in Geneva, ``we're running out of money.''
The United Nations, the United States government, and relief agencies have funds for air transport to southern cities and towns, says Mr. Koepp. But the Sudan government so far has shown a great ``lack of will'' in approving additional relief flights to many places, he says.
Numerous Western and Sudanese relief officials in Khartoum, have long accused the government of at least a studied lack of urgency, if not outright delay, in getting food to the south. Prime minister al-Mahdi claimed this was because the relief food might fall into rebel hands.
But many neutral southerners say flatly that al-Mahdi and other Arab politicians of the north have shown little concern for the black African civilians starving in the south.
Only in the past few months have top US officials begun speaking out on the need for massive food relief to the south and calling for a cease-fire.
According to the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Sudan expects a bumper crop of cereals this year. Many analysts expect Sudan to export this food - and some say it will use the foreign exchange earned to buy weapons to pursue the war.
``We're sitting on an atom bomb,'' says one relief official. Last fall, when neither truck convoys nor airplanes were arriving with food, ``we were within a week of anarchy here. The food had just finished, and stores were being broken into,'' he recalls.
At the local hospital in Juba, some patients are dying of hunger, according to one hospital official. The hospital has few medicines and no funds for meals. Some patients rely on friends and relatives to bring them food.
MEANWHILE in the refugee camps on the outskirts of the city, the sound of children laughing and playing intersperses what is otherwise near silence. Some children have distended stomachs - a sign of malnutrition. One woman, too weak to speak, groans as she sits on the ground.
Many of those interviewed say they would like to go home again, if peace comes. But for now, just to gather firewood at the edges of the city, they risk a violent encounter with the nearby rebels. On Mar. 18 and 19, the SPLA shelled Juba, killing eight civilians and wounding many more.
Analysts are divided over whether the rebels plan to actually take Juba militarily or to keep it surrounded as a pressure point to end the war.