Letter from Sudan
THE British Minister for Overseas Development, Christopher Patten, did not exaggerate when he said, on return from the EthiopianSudanese border, that south Sudan is "being turned into a graveyard."
Conditions in Juba, the capital of southern Sudan, are harsh and the 370,000 people there struggle under a heavy burden. Exhausted, hungry, sick and dispirited, driving themselves on in the never-ending battle to survive. Thousands of malnourished people in Juba depend upon an erratic and small supply of food brought into the town by relief agencies.
But even such daring trips cannot save the town from starvation. "This amount of food will only feed a fraction of those in need," said Gordon Wagner, the US representative of Oxfam in Juba.
Most of the residents in Juba live in flimsy shelters thrown up on top of garbage dumps. The few who were issued with tents have family connections to the Sudanese military. "People here are clinging to life by the skin of their teeth," said Mario Osito, Sudanaid coordinator, as we drove down through the umbling, potholed roads of the slums of Juba.
Amid a cluster of huts, I saw a boy crawl from a mud-and-water hut with a cone of dried grass as a roof. He tried to stand, but his thin legs would not support him and he fell. He was struggling against severe malnutrition. His head was too big for his body and his red hair had receded as if he were an old man. He was only four years old.
Next to him was his elder sister who stood silently, staring blankly. Her skin stretched taut over her rib cage, her pelvis and hip bones. Her knees stuck out like knots on a sapling. In all the ten feeding centres I visited in Juba malnourished children screamed in agony.
As I walked in the devastated streets of Juba, I noticed in almost everybody I met a sign of starvation. The only people who still have extra flesh on their bodies are top government officials, church leaders and traders.
As a result of the famine, health is an acute problem in this once lively town. Almost every child in the hospital suffers from malnutrition. One look in the narrow hospital corridors highlighted this appalling situation.
UNICEF officials told me that less than five per cent of the population in the whole region has any access to clean drinking water and that malaria, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, worms and diarrhoea are common in the refugee camps.
The famine in Sudan is not like other famines that have troubled Africa. Though the country has been plagued by natural disasters, especially during the last three years, when drought has prevailed, nature is not the principal culprit. Man is.
The principal cause of the famine has been war — a war that has been largely ignored by the international community. The fighting, which is a crushing financial burden for an already bankrupt country, has meant the virtual destruction of a nation and the near extermination of a culture.
In the west, the war is portrayed as a religious one — Africans in the south, who are Christians, against the Arab Moslems in the north. "In Sudan it is impossible for one who has eyes to see and ears to hear to deny that there exist racial and religious discrimination," said Archbishop Gabriel Zubeir Wako, President of the Sudan Catholic Bishops' Conference.
The myth that it is a religious war is perpetuated by both sides: by the members of the Sudanese Moslem elite because they hope to gain the backing of the Arab states, and by the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army (SPLA) — the southern rebel army headed by Colonel John Garang — because it wants to tap into anti-Arab and anti-Islamic bias among individuals and governments.
The underlying causes of the conflict, which has gone on in various forms for more than 30 years, are crystal clear; discrimination and a demand for equality. Economic power and political power are concentrated in the Arab north, and the black south has been left out.
Both sides in the war have deployed a silent weapon to kill women and children: starvation. It is much a part of their warfare as automatic rifles and land mines. Relief officials interviewed in Juba spoke of an endless series of barriers erected by various government entitities which precluded an effective relief operation in response to the lam inc.
Most western governments have avoided blaming the Sudan government for this human tragedy for fear of either sacrificing their diplomatic connections with the country on the altar of politics, or for misconceived ideological notions.
Br Sofuronio Efuk