DURING the last few years, efforts have been made to publicize and prevent the use of food as a weapon of war. Unfortunately, the combatants in Sudan are a step ahead of the game. Outright racial, ethnic, and religious genocide have become the preferred tactics in an increasingly brutal power play.
Entire subcultures risk extinction in parts of southern Sudan. The denial or blocking of relief food is often only the last step in a descending staircase of terror, which includes forcible displacement, stripping assets, slavery, laying mines on agricultural lands, poisoning wells, and bombing market areas. For most southern Sudanese children who have never experienced peace, these degradations are perceived as normal facets of life.
Only a few years ago, 150,000 people lived in the town of Bor on the bank of the Nile River. Retaken by the government after fratricidal ethnic conflict, Bor is now a ghost town. There were once hundreds of thousands of cattle in Kongor; recent United Nations overflights reveal "not a single cow." At least eight towns were nearly depopulated by a government offensive last summer. In Ayod, 60,000 displaced people survived on wild foods during January, with malnutrition peaking at more than 40 percent.
None of the combatants are exempt from blame. The government regularly bombs civilians in southwestern Sudan. Besides bombing rebel-held towns, government forces continue to hold civilians hostage in the towns they control. In Juba, 300,000 displaced and local people are used as human shields for the garrison outpost against rebel attack, while fervent fundamentalists are free to carry out their Islamization and Arabization campaigns with impunity.
Factions of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) regularly destroy or steal crops and raid cattle, exacerbating ethnic tension in the south. Both the SPLA and government have armed tribal-based militia that have wreaked havoc on certain groups because of their perceived political orientation. A group of prominent Southern Church leaders was recently moved to express its disapprobation in a letter to SPLA factions: "We have tasted liberation, but now the taste has turned sour as some of our lib erators have become oppressors of our people."
Particular mention must be made of a transitional zone between north and south called the Nuba Mountains, an area the size of Scotland in which 1 million people reside. In a vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing unparalleled on the African continent, government army and militia forces rape women, burn villages, enslave children, and execute intellectuals in an effort to depopulate an area rich in minerals and agricultural potential. Thousands of Nuba people have been relocated to "peace villages," where t hey are used as cheap labor and subject to virulent Arabization and Islamization campaigns. Access to the Nuba Mountains and to the "peace villages" is completely denied to international organizations, although one Sudan Red Crescent survey team found malnutrition rates of 60 percent last summer.
The ill treatment of millions of Sudanese civilians expressly violates international law. The Geneva Conventions, ratified by 164 states, spell out clear rules that all victims of war have the right to protection from murder, torture, and starvation. Article Three of the Conventions forbids the use of weapons against civilians. Articles 55 and 56 of the UN Charter pledge states to a collective responsibility for the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
If events inside Sudan aren't enough justification for action, Chapter Seven of the UN Charter enables the Security Council to act if it determines that internal violence poses a threat to regional peace. One million Sudanese refugees wander through eight bordering countries; and the fundamentalist regime in Khartoum has been accused of political meddling or worse in Kenya, Uganda, Egypt, Ethiopia, Algeria, and Eritrea.
In southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains, the case appears to be almost airtight for international intervention. The lessons from Somalia and Yugoslavia indicate the need to act before large multilateral military forces are required. But the intervention needed now in Sudan is not military, though somber and sincere warnings of the availability of that option would certainly not hurt diplomatic efforts.
In devising preliminary, nonmilitary options, it is critical to note that war in southern Sudan is not carried out by soldiers isolated from civilian populations. Both government garrisons and guerrilla battalions require local populations to service their demands for food, firewood, and water. This is why war strategies target civilians - to attack the social and economic support structure on which military units are dependent. Pouring food aid into vulnerable areas only cements the relationships betwee n soldiers and civilians. Towns and camps for the displaced that are on a perpetual dole provide a steady source of sustenance for armed forces.
Separating civilians from soldiers by negotiating demilitarized zones would be a big first step in protecting vulnerable groups in southern Sudan. These zones should be productive areas with no strategic significance where people can farm or graze their animals. No faction of the SPLA, militia, or government force would be allowed access to these areas.
These demilitarized zones would also be used to try to restore the subsistence economy of southern Sudan, a micro-economy that for centuries averted large-scale famines. Displaced populations could return to these areas along protected, predesignated safe corridors. UN human rights observers should be given unimpeded access to all areas of Sudan where vulnerable populations reside in order to monitor for potential violations by any warring faction.
The major shortcoming in the Somalia operation is that it is designed to protect towns, camps, and relief supplies, creating an unsustainable delivery structure dependent on aid in areas of strategic appeal to the militia and their merchant backers. The focus in Sudan should be on the protection and demilitarization of rural, productive, and nonstrategic areas where local community structures can gradually be reempowered and local subsistence strategies can be restored.
Calls have come from numerous legislative bodies around the world for the establishment of Kurdistan-style safe havens in southern Sudan. But this escalation may be premature, and military intervention may only exacerbate a complex and fragmented situation. A window exists for voluntary agreement on resettling noncombatants in demilitarized zones of production. Combined with aggressive human rights monitoring and specific repercussions for persistent violations, the international community has an opportu nity to prevent a major holocaust in Sudan, rather than cleaning up the mess afterward.