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Tuesday, April 7, 1998 Published at 04:29 GMT 05:29 UK


Southern Sudan 'in desperate need of aid'
image: [ Mothers are having to feed their children grass seeds and leaves ]
Mothers are having to feed their children grass seeds and leaves

The international medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières has added its voice to calls for relief to be sent urgently to the Bahr el Ghazal region of southern Sudan.

The United Nations says that 350,000 people are in urgent need of relief because of fighting and crop failures.

Relief efforts have been hampered because the government of Sudan has only just allowed aid flights to resume after blocking them for nearly two months. Our East Africa correspondent, Martin Dawes, has just returned from Bahr el Ghazal.

In the village of Turalei, women are scavenging in the dusty fields for grass seed which will be pounded into paste to feed aching bellies. People are eating leaves and wild fruit. It's the only food available to them.

Last year, the crops failed. Rains are imminent, but there are no seeds. A day's walk away is a feeding centre, but only the strongest or the most desperate make the journey.

Bargaining with people's lives

The United Nations calculates that it's fulfilling the needs of only 20% of those it can reach. The emergency response is having difficulty catching up because of a ban on aid flights imposed by the Sudanese government. As fighting displaced tens of thousands of people, the regime in Khartoum prove deaf to entreaties for relief flights.

It's just given permission for the air bridge to be reopened, but it's made it clear that if the humanitarian organisations are so concerned then they should put pressure on the rebels in the south to agree to a ceasefire.

The mixing of aid and politics by the government of Sudan suggests a cynical use of people's lives as a bargaining chip.

Aid this month is beginning to flow again, but the UN knows Khartoum can turn it off at any time. Stop-go relief operations are a weapon that's already cost lives in Bahr el Ghazal.

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