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Friday, July 17, 1998 Published at 12:25 GMT 13:25 UK

(Mis)reporting Sudan's famine

President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan has been celebrating the anniversary of the coup d'etat which brought him to power nine years ago. But with fighting in the North and a growing famine in the South making daily life a misery for thousands, many of his people feel there's not a great deal to celebrate. And sometimes the journalists, who fly in to cover the famine, make matters worse - as Jane Standley has been finding out:

[ image: President Omar el-Beshir: nine years since a coup brougt him to power]
President Omar el-Beshir: nine years since a coup brougt him to power
You don't get to meet supermodels and celebrities very often if you work in Africa. When you do, you know it's because something, somewhere is going badly wrong.

The deep-fry heat of the dessicated Kenya-Sudan border town of Lokichokkio made this supermodel long for a shower. Alek Wek is from southern Sudan - but the catwalks of London, Paris and Milan are where she lives now. She's just got off a small plane from a remote part of southern Sudan.

Rich and famous sympathy

I remember the Somali model Iman doing the same in her country's famine a few years ago. Is it right to record the rich and famous dispensing sympathy to the starving? I argue - weakly - to myself that if it makes people watch, think and give, it's better than no one knowing and caring.

[ image: Aid agencies are unhappy with the way Sudan's famine is being portrayed]
Aid agencies are unhappy with the way Sudan's famine is being portrayed
It's an argument I have with an old southern Sudanese friend who's been on the supermodel's publicity trip. Jacob's charity will get credits and probably donations from her efforts. But he's not happy at the way in which the story of his country is being told.

"I've just been to a village called Thiet", Jacob says, "and every family there has lost a child. Not to starvation but to the raiding militia sent by the government from the north. They're taking these children to sell as slaves, they're burning people's grain stores, they're forcing them from their fields.

[ image: Sudan's long-running civil war is behind much of the famine]
Sudan's long-running civil war is behind much of the famine
"This is what's causing the hunger. But the journalists, they don't want to know because there are no pictures of it, and they have come for pictures of a famine."

Our little plane is now ready and we're off to get our own pictures of thin people with little to eat. In the six-seater with one propeller we're heading to the far north of the worst-affected province.

'The Sea of Antelopes'

Bahr al Ghazal means sea of antelopes - but most were eaten long ago. It's miles and miles of dry river beds, open empty plains with rare settlements of tukuls - the traditional Sudanese straw topped huts. But we stay only five minutes in our destination - the village of Panthou.

The aid workers have to evacuate their feeding centre for severely malnourished children - they've been warned by rebel soldiers that the militia raiders may be on their way here. We fly them out - otherwise they would have to run into the bush - and hope for the best. The southern Sudanese people have no choice but to stay and hope for the best - they will try to carry on feeding the sick children. But we get no footage.

[ image:
"Great pictures"
A journalist who'd been here had told us it was "one of the best places - full of babies screaming for food.

"I usually run into the feeding centres shouting show me your worst," he'd said, "but here they're all the worst. Great pictures."

'Pencil limbs, drooping with papery flesh'

We deliver the aid workers to another relief centre - the town of Mapel. The rains have started, weeks late. Dazzlingly green new grass has sprouted. But some of the seeds planted in hope of a harvest have withered in the ground, and every day more people trek in from surrounding villages looking for help. In brittle arms they carry their children - pencil limbs, drooping with papery flesh, heads bulging with the veins of the elderly.

[ image: Civil war has forced many to flee their homes]
Civil war has forced many to flee their homes
We will have to do our story here - and the aid workers are not keen on journalists - though they know that coverage brings cash. "We had a film crew here", a young nurse Laurance tells me. They were from my home, from Paris. "When the plane came over to drop the sacks of food they wouldn't move back - and we then couldn't clear the local people away - they could be killed you know". So the airdrop had to be abandoned Laurance says - "and some of the Sudanese had walked for days to get here, knowing that food was on its way."

Such stories always make me sad and angry. We do our best to show that we are not here to get in the way, only to tell that people are suffering here - and why they are suffering. That it's an evil recipe of war, drought, displacement, disease which has brought the people of southern Sudan to their knees.

The war is very close here - southern rebel fighters who help themselves to food rations are in control. But government troops are only 12 miles away.

People plant their crops not knowing if the weather and the war will allow them to harvest. They stand at the aid agency relief centre in stoical, patient silence waiting their turn with more dignity than I'm sure I could muster.

Everyone offers a welcome and a handshake - a respectful smile which must be returned with like respect. Watching the cameras which have come to record the "great pictures" of their troubles.

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