W.F. Deedes, who has reported on conflict in Africa since 1935, found famine and religious persecution entwined in war-torn Sudan
STiDAN'S civil war has been running for a long time, without attracting much attention in the West. Now, as painful pictures • appear on our screens of women and children on the brink of starvation, people are asking what it is all about. To explain that is beyond my capacity. I shelter behind the aphorism they apply to Sudan's political scene: "If you are not confused, you do not understand!"
Fundamentally, there is a divide between the predominantly Arab and Muslim North and the African and Christian South. Some now say that when we ended our responsibilities for the Sudan 40 years ago we should have partitioned the country, as we partitioned India. I doubt whether it would have worked. The Southern territory is richer than the North. The course of the Nile makes it more fertile, there are minerals and oil. Bluntly, the North covets the South not its people, but its territory. The South, for its part, finds the Muslim-dominated regime of Khartoum oppressive.
, So for these and other more complex reasons this country has been at war with itself for three of the last four 'decades. It is a war which has already cost a million lives and denied another three million their homes. The numbers displaced are beyond calculation.
This goes part of the way towards _ explaining why this food crisis in a huge region of the South has suddenly sprung upon us. The Bahr-el-Ghazal region of some 82,000 square miles is occupied by around 725,000 people of whom 110,000 are displaced. A displaced person represents a deficit of two. Far from home, he cannot sow or reap. That amount of produce is lost. At the same time, he depends on the host population for food and support. It is long-term insecurity, leading to such large-scale displacement and drought that has created this food crisis in the South.
In my experience, prospective famines are very hard to forecast. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and United Nations World Food Programme which run Operation Lifeline Sudan from a camp and air base on the Kenya-Sudan border, reckon that 350,000 half the total population are now at risk. Having flown up to Bahr-eIGhazal last week, I do not think this claim is exaggerated. To some degree in most years there is a hunger gap there at this time. Much of the previous year's harvest has been consumed. The fresh seed planted when the rains come later in May will not produce another harvest until October. It is war and a fierce drought which have made this gap alarm ing. To all of which must be added the most difficult factor of all. Operation Lifeline Sudan, which has been running for a decade, could probably avert disaster were it allowed to work at full potential. OLS works almost entirely from an air base at Lokichokie on the KenyaSudan border. From this base Hercules and Buffalo transporter aircraft load supplies and fly them to the vulnerable points in southern Sudan. Though agreement has been secured with both the Government of Sudan in Khartoum and with Sudan People's Liberation Army in the South to run OLS, there are severe restrictions imposed by Khartoum. There is a limit on the number of planes that can be used for the airlift and a limit on how often they can fly.
In all such wars, combatants fear that sending relief to the innocent citizens involved will indirectly assist the enemy. As Khartoum sees it, food supplies for the South gives soldiers of the SPLA a freer hand to fight. In fact, as I have ascertained, OLS delivers around 40 per cent of supplies to the North. It is a fair system; and as the threat of famine grows, Khartoum should be persuaded to put humanity first and let the planes in.
Air lifting on this scale over hundreds of miles is an expensive business. So there is a shortage of money as well as of planes. Donor countries who subscribe some of UNICEF's income have become weary of Africa's war. UNICEF has not expanded for this operation. On the contrary, it is under strong pressure to cut back. My guess is that much of the money needed for rescuing Bahr-el-Ghazl from starvation about three-and-a-half million dollars will have to come from private donations.
One consequence of the long war and the SPLA's military successes has been to restore religious freedom to almost all southern Sudan. All the Christian Churches are desperately poor in material, but rich in spirit. The ecumenical spirit is strong. As Bishop Joseph Marona of the Maridi Diocese put it: "Our Churches work together, knowing we are in the front line. The Church has expanded very fast. Where Christians suffer, people turn to God." In truth, in the desolate South, the Church has for most people become the only stable institution. But it has to move with the people. Even the bishops in the course of this long struggle have become displaced people.
In the North, Islam remains the dominant force. Christians are under constant pressure to adopt the Muslim faith. In Government camps for displaced people there is open discrimination against Christians. Bishop Marona tells the story of a man close to starvation who came under such pressure. "What? Sell my faith for food?" he is reported to have exclaimed. There have been many conversions under duress. "Unquestionably," I was told by different sources, "there is persecution of Christians in the North." "What happens in the North," said one source, "amounts to the abuse of human rights."
Peace talks are about to begin again. From every standpoint the case for ending this war is overwhelming. It is costing the Government of the North money it cannot afford. It is ruining a fine country. It is causing acute distress to millions. And now it may cause the death of tens of thousands more through famine.
Would that those involved in these talks had been with me when I visited a small supplementary feeding centre at Panthou at the heart of the crisis, to which mothers had come in hope of getting something for their babies. There, gathered under the merciful shade of a great tree, were more than a hundred or more mothers with their babies, waiting in hope.
The babies were to be tested weight against height If they fell 70 percent below the weight of a child of their height they got a modest ration of Unimix (a high protein product), sugar and oil. A smaller number of mothers, whose children had passed this test, formed another group receiving the ration. All of them had walked a long way in raging heat. Looking upon this forlorn scene, one of the saddest I have ever witnessed, I fell to thinking about the cruelty of modern war. War is no longer simply fought between soldiers. Increasingly, it is visited on the innocent, the poorest, the sick, on women and children. Babies are the first to die in a famine.
The most likely outcome of these peace talks, in my judgement, will be an uneasy truce. Most of the fighting has to stop at this season because of the rains. But the wells of bitterness created by this conflict run deep. The fundamental differences remain. And for many of the babies I saw under the great tree, it will be too late.
• UNICEF Sudan Emergency Appeal Donation Line: 0345 312 312. Calls are charged at local rates. For CAFOD's appeal, see page 3, and CHRIsnew Alp's, see page 7.