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Wednesday, June 17, 1998 Published at 11:40 GMT 12:40 UK

Sudan: the seeds of despair

Children suffer first and worse in a food crisis

The United Nations has announced that 1.2m people now face starvation in southern Sudan. East Africa correspondent Martin Dawes, who has been reporting on the crisis as it has developed, reflects on how it came about:

Hunger is nothing new to southern Sudan. The people have learned to cope with drought and the effects of the 15-year-old civil war.

[ image: Martin Dawes]
Martin Dawes
Thin figures moving slowly in a broad flat expanse of landscape; suggest resilience and strength in a hostile world. But something changed this year. The people were no longer able to cope, and those who watch and warn were slow.

Within aid groups the first warnings were made late last year when it was clear that crops in the Bahr El Gazal region had suffered after a second year of drought. But the big donor countries did not have much interest in southern Sudan.

Calamity struck

When the nine-year-old UN relief effort, known as Operation Lifeline Sudan, issued an appeal in November, it warned that it was already pared to the bone. Many proposed projects for seeds had been turned down.

In the New Year the first calamity struck - 350,000 people spilled into the countryside to escape fighting around the city of Wau. Thanks to the activities of Maj General Karabino Bol, a former rebel and government commander turned rebel again, the surrounding areas had been devastated by raids that seemed designed to cause famine. Crops were stolen or burned, cattle driven off, communities disrupted.

The government in Khartoum used the fighting to ban all aid flights for most of March. It was a cynical measure at a critical time. The international aid effort never recovered. One worker said, " The Sudanese government knew exactly what it was doing".

Awful warning

The loss of the flights meant that the international aid givers lost what little sense they had of what was happening. People were moving, there were refugees and very little food. Villagers were scavenging for leaves and wild fruits. This is something that usually happens, but in August - not in March. It was too early, and was an awful warning.

Journalists are not immune from the difficulties faced by the aid agencies. Very few involved themselves with the story. Charter flights are expensive, and covering this slow burning disaster has required regular, weekly or daily trips into the famine zones. Flights in light aircraft for three and a half-hours are not fun. And the story has changed. What was seen as a manageable crisis has become an emergency heading out of control.

When free access was re-established more aid workers were able to visit more areas. It became obvious that whole communities in a number of places were going to need feeding if wholesale death was to be avoided.

The figures crept up; 350,000, then 700,000 - it now stands at an estimated 1.2m.

Even professional aid givers were reluctant to sound too alarmist. It was not uncommon to find people on the ground expressing frustration that their head offices did not appear to recognise the enormity of what was happening.

Large-scale deaths, it is thought, have still not happened. But there have been many deaths.

The children suffer first

[ image: Scavenging for food]
Scavenging for food
Feeding centres set up for the malnourished children have seen a rapid rise in the intakes. It is these places that have provided the most awful testimony.

In any food crisis it is always the children who suffer first and worse. Skeletal babies with big eyes in aged faces. Toddlers with legs that have lost all muscle, but which can still propel them in a tottering gait towards the food queues. Children fainting. Spats between adults as they divide up the rations that have been dropped from the air.

Viewing this is an appalling, mind assaulting, searing experience which rises as choked back tears.

Next year

Can great numbers of deaths be avoided? I don't know. Is enough being done? Clearly not. The UN's World Food Programme says donor countries have been slow in making the necessary food stocks available.

What about next year? The signs for this year's harvest are not good. Many people are moving in search of food and the war means continued insecurity.

Southern Sudan has been on the rack of civil war for fifteen years. Only peace can bring a real chance of ending the endemic suffering.

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