Inside An African Famine

When Achol Deng wakes each morning, she counts what she has left: three of five children, a painted shell necklace meant to ward off evil spirits, and a cup of maize that won't get her family through the day.

"I have nothing," Mrs. Deng says, "totally nothing."

She has little energy to analyze how her remaining family got to nothing. But many in the international community - which is funding the $1-million-a-day relief effort known as Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) - insist that this famine in Africa's largest country was born of politics and must end in politics.

Deng lost her husband to fighting in Sudan's long civil war, one that pits an Islamic fundamentalist government in the north against Christians and animists in the south.

But here in Sudan's famine-stricken south she won't discuss whether she blames Sudan's government, the rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), or the weather that has devastated crops.

"In every direction you go, you find people who are crying and hungry," Deng says. "So, when you use your mind, you can only think how to survive. There's nothing left over to think about politics."

Deng's a victim, say foreign-aid workers, of a strategy by the Islamic north to use starvation as a weapon. So far, as many as 2.6 million people face starvation. In Mapel, 28 people out of every 10,000 are dying each day, according to a recent survey.

After 15 years and 1.5 million deaths from both famine and fighting, Africa's oft-forgotten war has lost little steam. So far international efforts have failed.

"What is needed is a political solution," says Tom Vraalsen, a Norwegian appointed United Nations special envoy for humanitarian affairs in Sudan.

Some argue that even the "humanitarian" in Mr. Vraalsen's title demonstrates that the world focuses on the wrong thing: simply easing the suffering of the famine without addressing root causes.

"We are working with the consequences of a political crisis, not a humanitarian one," says Alex Parisel, general director of Mdecins Sans Frontires (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders, in Belgium. "It's not acceptable that people continue to die, and we just alleviate it. But there is no pressure from the West on the government or the rebels to reach a solution."

The Aug. 20 US missile strike on a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory, which was allegedly producing an ingredient for chemical weapons, beefed up rebels' hopes that Washington and the rest of the West will take a tougher stance against the Sudanese government and thus, by default, in favor of the rebels.

Sudan hasn't enjoyed a year of real peace in the four decades since it gained its independence from Britain. The current civil war has raged on and off since 1983, when Muslim Arabs in the capital, Khartoum, declared that the strict rules of sharia, or Islamic law, would apply to the entire country. The people in the south, who hold Christian or tribal beliefs, rebelled and formed the SPLA. Their goal: a secular democratic Sudan or, if that's unacceptable to the north, an independent south Sudan.

But sometime next year, the government's ability to wage war may be enhanced when the fundamentalist Islamic regime of President Omar al-Bashir is expected to be self-sufficient in oil. So far, its most sophisticated weapons are cluster bombs rolled off the back of Antonov airplanes.

The bombs are indiscriminate and inaccurate, and often hit villages, towns, and even international-aid centers.

Some of the most damaging government attacks are committed by Arab militiamen on horseback known by the Arabic word murahaleen. They kill civilians, burn crops, and steal livestock and seeds.

"The murahaleen used to take a few cows with spears," as one senior aid official here puts it. "Now they have AK-47s, so they can take hundreds."

The result is that thousands of civilians lose their herds and their food reserves overnight. Many trek to other regions in search of food and shelter.

The displacement and dispossession fuel the famine more than any rainfall shortage ever could, and aid workers here say that it is an equation the Sudanese government knows well.

Starvation is an inexpensive war strategy.

Khartoum denies encouraging famine conditions or hindering relief operations, but it dealt a severe setback to relief agencies earlier this year by banning flights into Sudan for two months.

It also won't let large cargo planes such as C-130s land in south Sudan - saying it fears such aircraft could be used to transport weapons to the rebels. So food must be airdropped, which is costly and inefficient.

On the ground, the war is not so much a religious conflict as a power struggle along ethnic and territorial lines.

The Bahr al-Arab River has served as a sort of unofficial dividing line between Arabs of the north and Africans of the south. But analysts say the government wants to control fertile land and underground oil reserves in the south - and perhaps populate it with Muslims.

In 1996, the government signed accords with several rebel factions formerly allied with the SPLA, holding out the promise of peace and autonomy.

But those who agreed simply got financial and military support from the government - and in some cases important appointments - and then were sent back to fight against forces loyal to the SPLA leader, Col. John Garang, who stayed out of the talks.

"Khartoum's plan was used to deceive people, not to make an agreement," says Joseph Del, a senior official in the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association (SRRA), the humanitarian wing of the SPLA.

"They promised to give autonomy to southerners, but it was just a quid pro quo to get some people to fight their own people. Now we see how it has made people suffer and starve."

Southern Sudanese roundly dismiss a political solution. "You are asking people in the south to abandon the struggle because they are already starving," says Justin Yaac Arop, SRRA's top emissary for East Africa, based in Nairobi, Kenya. "and to submit either to be Muslims or to be ruled by a foreign law."

Similar words come from Mawiir Nyok, who is secretary of the SRRA in Gogrial County - the area hit hardest by Sudan's famine. The Khartoum government, he says, wants an Islamic country.

"Among my people, in my generation, nobody would agree to give in to that," he says in an interview in the area of Ajiep.

Mr. Nyok knows full well that most of the famine deaths here had little to do with rainfall shortages or crop failures. The 15-year war is to blame - but that doesn't change the SPLA's will to fight. Between starvation and capitulation, he says, they'll take starvation. "The famine is a man-made one."

Tower-tall, like most members of the Dinka tribe - the largest tribe in south Sudan - Nyok walks around Ajiep in an American-style shorts-and-T-shirt ensemble that makes him stand out among the tribesmen here, though perhaps less than he would in ultraconservative Khartoum, where the Arab dress code demands modesty for men and women.

There, he says, non-Muslim Africans can never be treated as equal citizens by the Arab elite. The Arab-African tensions stretch back to the days when Sudan was a major center of the regional slave trade - a persistent sore point because southerners continue to be captured and sold into slavery during the frequent raids on their villages.

"In Khartoum, whatever good thing you do for people there, they still call you 'abed,' " he says, using the Arabic term for slave.

While Nyok speaks, hungry children begin their evening wails before bedtime. He has sent his wife and four children to live in Kenya, but he remains here to try to monitor the flow of food aid and obtain seeds and agricultural tools.

"Ninety percent of the people here have not cultivated a single field this season," he says. "If we don't regain control of that, it's going to be worse next year."

He will ask aid agencies for three more years of emergency aid, after which, he hopes, people in this deceptively green land could again be self-sufficient.

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