SUDAN, with one of the world's poorest and currently most unpopular governments, needs international help quickly to prevent massive starvation, relief officials say. Up to 9 million people will need some food relief over the next year, according to United Nations and United States officials here.
``Reports suggest starvation is beginning among the vulnerable groups,'' says Michael Priestley, head of UN relief efforts in Sudan.
Mr. Priestley and a variety of other international officials here say that because of a severe drought and the devastating effects of war, thousands of people in recent weeks have left their homes and migrated toward towns in search of food. Livestock prices are falling, indicating rural families that sell their herds to get money to buy food are feeling more desperate.
The emergency comes at a time when Sudan is financially strapped and politically isolated by its stand in support of Iraq. Sudan has condemned the intervention of non-Arab troops in the Gulf crisis.
The price of food in Sudan is soaring. Over the last several months, a 200-pound sack of sorghum has quadrupled in price in Khartoum, the capital.
Food prices have increased by as much as 14 times in some parts of the south over the last year, according to one survey.
In some towns, families are earning only half what they need to have even a minimal diet, according to a report by a private donor organization.
``It's clear to us and all the donors [that] we are seeing the initial stages of a major crisis,'' says Frederick Machmer, regional director of United States Agency for International Development, which is currently the largest donor of food to Sudan.
``It's not too late'' to avert a tragedy, says Dr. Machmer. But, he cautions, unless some of the logistical ``obstacles'' are removed, ``starvation on a massive scale'' might occur. He cites the recent seizure by Sudan's government of some 40,000 tons of relief food. The government contended it was doing an ``inventory,'' but agreed to release the food after strong US protests.
US, UN, and private donor officials point to other obstacles:
A train loaded with food relief for government- and rebel-held areas in Sudan's seven-year old civil war has been delayed for about a year by an armed militia backed by the government. Local militia commanders say the food will feed the enemy, though most of it is destined for civilians in government areas.
Barges carrying food relief also have been delayed for a year as rebels and the government quarrel about distribution of relief in the south.
Diplomats, including US Ambassador James Cheek, and relief officials have frequently been denied travel permits to drought areas. Most relief agencies coming to Sudan are forced to exchange money at a rate three times below the rate normally given to visitors.
``A simple truck battery this year cost $1,200 and a gallon of engine oil costs $150,'' says a frustrated official of a private Western relief agency.
``So we end up paying for their war'' through the unfavorable exchange rates imposed on donors, he says. ``We're in a moral dilema.'' To pull out of Sudan because of such obstacles would increase chances of starvation, he says.
Mr. Cheek told the Monitor that two basic questions must be answered favorably to avoid a wide-spread disaster:
Will donors respond, given all the current obstacles? He thinks they will, reluctantly.
Will the government remove the obstacles and cooperate in food relief - or at least not interfere? ``They'd certainly have every reason'' to cooperate, says Cheek, but some donors and diplomats question the extent to which Sudan's military government ``cares'' about drought victims and preventing starvation.
A Middle Eastern diplomat here says death is not seen as such a traumatic event in the Muslim world. (Sudan's government is Muslim-dominated.) ``Death is a bridge to heaven,'' the diplomat explained.
A private Western donor adds bluntly: ``They [the Muslim government] don't care what happens to these people'' in the south, which is primarily non-Muslim. But the current drought has hit all regions of the country, according to UN and US officials. This effects many Muslims in the north.
Food riots broke out among students in the southern town of Babanousa this week. The military ended the disturbance with the help of tear gas, according to Western sources here.
Further riots could present a political challenge to the government, diplomatic sources here say, especially in Khartoum, where there are an estimated 1.5 to 1.8 million displaced people who fled the war and drought of earlier years.
If the government's own assessments conclude that the food situation is quite serious, ``we have no other option but to tell the international community, because it's a responsibility we have to share with our brother,'' says Ibrahim Abuoaf, first secretary of the Ministry of Relief and Affairs of Displaced and Refugees in Sudan. He adds that a government report is not likely until the end of next month.
But Finance Minister Abdelrahim Hamdi has already requested 1 million tons in food aid for the next year from officials in Washington.
Officials at USAID are estimating that between 500,000 and 1 million tons of food will be needed to feed some 6 million to 9 million people for at least part of the year.
Sudan's government-controlled radio, television, and newspapers, meanwhile, have been calling for Sudanese to be self-sufficient, and have not acknowledged the problems of the drought.