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War, Famine Devastate Sudan

July 28, 1998

AJIEP, Sudan (AP) _ Another baby dies, and another mother cries out in the steamy night. For Chok Abiei Kueth, the screams are all in a day’s work.

He buries the dead for a living, a busy job in southern Sudan, devastated by war and famine. He used to trade tea, when there was still a market for such goods.

Relief food is pouring into southern Sudan in multimillion-dollar air drops _ the world’s largest relief operation. But starving Sudanese, in conditions so desperate that mothers stare at their skeletal children in horrified disbelief, are still dying by the thousands.

Why is the food aid not helping? Why did it take so long to get here? And why is nothing being done to stop the 15-year civil war that has created yet another famine in Africa’s largest nation?

An estimated 1.5 million people have died in the civil war, and the arable land lies fallow. Ongoing violence keeps farmers from their fields.

The United Nations and individual governments condemn the endless killing and call for emergency food relief for an estimated 2.6 million people in rebel- and government-held areas of Sudan. But those with influence don’t seem able or willing to end the war.

Aid agencies can only deal with the war’s effects.

The U.N. World Food Program is air-dropping 9,500 tons of food per month _ at a cost of $30 million _ into southern Sudan in the world’s largest aid operation.

Earlier this month, WFP director Catherine Bertini urged the international community to stop the Sudan war. On Wednesday, she will address the issue again before a U.S. congressional committee.

``We recognize we have an advocacy responsibility on behalf of people ... to blow the bells and whistles to alert others to respond,″ said Michael Sackett, WFP’s eastern Africa regional manager.

``In the meantime we do the best possible job, short-term and Band-Aid though it is.″

The United States, which tacitly supports the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in its fight against Sudan’s Islamic government, is the largest donor, with $75 million in contributions this year.

Late last year, WFP estimated 250,000 people in southern Sudan would need food aid by spring because of poor harvests.

But in January, a failed attack by SPLA forces on Wau, the government-held capital of Bahr el-Ghazal province, resulted in widespread looting of food stocks and a government ban on further relief flights into the area.

An estimated 100,000 people fled Wau, abandoning fields that could have provided food.

It took two months of behind-the-scenes negotiations before relief flights could resume. By then, famine had set in.

``Why do governments support the SPLA for years and not respond to a humanitarian crisis?″ lamented WFP spokeswoman Michele Quintaglie.

At a feeding center in Ajiep, flooded with 70,000 people fleeing the wretchedness of war and hunger, death is never far away.

People so thin their bodies already appear mummified lie naked on mats in the compound, flies swarming above them. Mothers curl their long narrow frames around infants who reach painfully for sagging, empty breasts.

Relief food seems to be fueling the war. And while everyone is ready to point a finger, few seem ready to take responsibility.

The SPLA, whose top officials live comfortably in neighboring Kenya or elsewhere, deny claims by relief agencies that they divert relief food for their troops.

A rebel spokesman this week accused the Kenya-based Operation Lifeline Sudan, the umbrella group for U.N and other aid agencies, of corruption and inefficiency. UNICEF said the charge should be investigated.

Government forces often loot or burn food stocks if they fear rebels will get them.

The Sudanese government does not allow military transport aircraft, which have the largest capacity for aid drops, to fly into southern Sudan for fear they could be carrying arms for the rebels.

And the United Nations is criticized for cooperating with both the government _ by not pushing hard enough against the flight ban _ and the rebels.

Southern Sudan lacks roads, airstrips and other basic infrastructure. So the WFP is doubtful that a three-month cease-fire to allow humanitarian access to Bahr el-Ghazal can help.

Doctors Without Borders is working frantically to double the capacity of the Ajiep feeding center, the only one within six days’ walking distance, to about 5,000 people and cut down on the estimated 120 deaths a day.

When a civilian C-130 transport plane dropped 16 tons of corn on Ajiep, hundreds of people stood along the edges of the drop site, watching bags of life splat in the mud. The food was carried off by local aid workers paid in food.

Old men, women and children scrambled in on their hands and knees to pluck every last kernel of corn from sacks that had burst upon impact. A handful could mean the difference between life and death.

``Our children are dying,″ said Lual Madut Lual, an old man who watched the mayhem. ``Tell the world to come and ask why our people are dying.″

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