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Tuesday, May 19, 1998 Published at 10:18 GMT 11:18 UK

How much must Sudan suffer?

It is always difficult for aid agencies to know exactly how and when to react to what looks like an impending humanitarian disaster. And with the continuing civil war in the region there is also the question of whether any aid sent will reach the right people and not simply fill the bellies of the fighters. But our Africa Correspondent, George Alagiah, who has just returned from a trip to southern Sudan, asks whether any of us has the right to decide how much the people of Sudan should suffer before we take action:

Listen to George Alagiah's report in real audio (4' 58")
Over the years, the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi has become the favoured staging post for the hundreds of reporters who have passed through the city, attracted by the region's apparent propensity to provide more than its fair share of headline stories: Somalia in the early nineties, the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath - and before both those events there was, of course, the great Ethiopian famine in 1984.

[ image: Polio reduce her to crawling]
Polio reduce her to crawling
You will see the journalists often enough congregating on the terrace, rivals in the field but allies around a drink or two. In another era it was the big game-hunters - Hemingway had a room at the hotel and Teddy Roosevelt is said to have set off on his African safari from the Norfolk's terrace. The terrace itself is named after Lord Delamere . He was a leading figure in early colonial society. His name conjures up visions of the Happy Valley set - that group of rich and decadent settlers who got off to all sorts of white mischief in the 1920s and onwards.

'A blighted land'

I too was on that terrace the other day - there was a large group of us. Most had just returned from Southern Sudan. Usually these are occasions of great camaraderie where one can work off some of the emotional upheaval that is a predictable but unwelcome part of reporting. But it was different this time round.

[ image:  ]
Perhaps Gai and Atheny will do - two boys listlessly picking at a bowl of sorghum porridge. The food - a precious commodity - was a touching and pathetic attempt to console them after the loss of their mother. She lay there under a mat - her suffering was over; for the boys it was just beginning.

I tell myself in situations like that that I must resist the temptation to personalise what I am witnessing. It is an admonition that was difficult to heed that morning in Tanj. You see, I have two boys of my own, and slowly, almost imperceptibly, it was their faces I saw in front of me. I am embarrassed but not ashamed of the outrage and anguish I felt at that moment. Those emotions remind me that I cannot accept different standards for the children of Southern Sudan.

Sudanese know best

Of course there are practical problems, but that is not a good enough reason to give up trying. Most aid workers on the ground say this year is worse than others. More importantly, it is what the Sudanese people themselves are saying. They are much tougher on themselves than we are - it takes much more for them to lose faith in the coping strategies that have ensured their survival for centuries. It is they who are telling the aid workers that the harvest this autumn will not be enough to keep all of them alive.

Tanj is a long way from the terrace talk at the Norfolk Hotel, and - dare I say it ? - a world away from the analysts in Britain who try to measure the suffering of others. They carry on as if it were a precise science, as if there were an easily discernible point at which one could say: this is genuine hardship; now we should act.

If the people of Tanj had a voice, they would ask: How many dead Sudanese make an emergency ? Hands up all those who think they have an answer.

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