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Suffering in Sudan has gone on too long


Through the remains of Rumbek town, ragged, stick-thin figures move like shadows. They pick their way through the war-torn landscape looking for food.

This is daily life in southern Sudan’s Bahr al Ghazal region, where famine threatens the population. The United Nations says that 2.6 million people are at risk of starvation.

Coming face-to-face with a famine makes these statistics become human. Arriving by air from the relative affluence of northern Kenya, you are greeted by the bony hand of famine at the dirt airstrip. People of all ages surround you, looking like flesh has just been painted over their skeletons.

You soon find out that these are the relatively healthy ones. They have the strength to run to greet planes, hoping to receive something in exchange for unloading bags and cargo. As you travel to villages and towns in Bahr al Ghazal, the sights and smells of severe malnutrition become common: limbs like twigs, loss of hair, distended stomachs, edemas and the many diseases that attack the human body as starvation weakens it.

Above all, what I saw in southern Sudan made me conscious of my own mortality. These people cling to life only by sheer determination, and I’m certain that some are dead by now.

My work with Catholic Relief Services had taken me here. I was part of an emergency team sent to the isolated Rumbek diocese in Bahr al Ghazal. The diocese’s own relief efforts had been overwhelmed, and Msgr. Caesar Mazzolari, apostolic administrator of the diocese, had requested assistance. As many as 100,000 people had recently flooded the diocese searching for food or fleeing fighting in the neighboring Wau diocese.

I’d met with Mazzolari in Nairobi, and he had tried to explain what conditions and the people were like -- but his words could not prepare me for the reality.

People are not passive in a famine. Determination to survive will push them to do extraordinary things. Women will walk with their children for days and throughout the night to reach food distribution centers, sometimes only to find that the food has run out. People will seek sustenance where only the desperate would look, by gathering weeds, wild nuts and berries.

I also saw smiles, even laughter, along with the misery. In Rumbek, close to the remains of the town’s Catholic church, I came across a band of five children. They were led by a young girl of about 10. She was with what I later learned were her two younger brothers. One was no more than 18 months old and clung to the girl’s neck. A small girl in a tattered red dress and an older boy, maybe 12, tagged along with the girl and her brothers. They were all severely malnourished and dressed in rags.

They eyed me suspiciously. It was obvious they were searching among the weeds and rubble for food. One of the boys was carrying three pieces of fungi in a calabash shell. They nervously followed me back to where we had pitched our tents and after a while accepted some milk, purified water and cookies from me.

The girl told me that they had been taking shelter not far away. Her mother had left them a few days ago to find food and had not come back. The other two couldn’t tell me their story but also seemed to have been orphaned, temporarily or otherwise. Cheered by their breakfast, they were soon smiling and chatting away. The small girl in the red dress, despite being diseased and little more than skin and bones, had a beautiful, happy smile.

Heading back to the world of food and security by air a few days later, I reflected upon how such a parlous situation as the Sudanese famine has come about. Both humanity and nature have conspired to produce vast human suffering.

For 15 years the mainly Muslim and Arabic North has battled with the animist and Christian black African South. The government in Khartoum has tried to impose an Islamic state, while the main Southern force, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, aims for at least autonomy for the South.

Drought and intermittent flooding over the past two years have led to widespread crop failure in southern Sudan. When crops failed, Sudanese were forced to eat their sorghum and maize seeds to survive, leaving them with nothing to sow during the next planting season. The civil war and now the famine in Sudan are estimated to have killed a staggering 1.5 million people out of a population of less than 30 million.

In addition to the danger from warfare, Sudan’s sheer size and underdevelopment make aid efforts difficult. Only small planes can land in Bahr al Ghazal, and rain can close airstrips for days. The journey by road from Uganda or Kenya is long and dangerous. Much of the route is little more than quagmires. Trucks, even eight-wheel drive vehicles, cannot pass for much of the year.

What Sudan needs sounds simple: peace and food, not much to ask. But to bring this to the country, the international community, America in particular, will need to give this humanitarian catastrophe the attention for which it cries out.

While I was in Rumbek, an announcement came that the government and the Liberation Army had declared temporary cease-fires. The Sudanese I was with didn’t bat an eyelid. They were cynical to say the least. Who would enforce and monitor the cease-fire? Would it include the various militias? They were adamant that only with international attention would any lasting peace be found.

I left Sudan with more questions than answers, but not about the country or its horrific famine. I was trying to fathom how the country and its people could be neglected by the world for so long. How can people die for the want of basic nutrition as we approach the 21st century? We can only answer these questions by looking into ourselves.

Tom Price works with Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore.

National Catholic Reporter, September 11, 1998