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Drought edges toward Nile. With famine deepening in Sudan, even villages within 30 miles of the river are being abandoned

The scale of the famine and drought in Sudan -- a country that is larger than all of Western Europe and contains about 22 million people -- surpasses anything seen in this century. Villages within some 30 miles of the White Nile between Kosti and Umm Ruwaba are emptying as normally fertile alluvial land dries out and farmers flee.

In an interview, Sudan's deputy commissioner for refugees, Hassan Attiya, estimated that about 1.4 million refugees have now come into Sudan, more than at any other time in the country's history. They look for food and water, which they must share with local Sudanese also hit by famine.

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Mr. Attiya reckons 847,000 refugees have come from northern Ethiopia, 300,000 from Chad in the west, 250,000 from Uganda in the south, and 5,000 from Zaire.

Across Khartoum in another office, stifling in the intense May heat, the head of the largest aid agency in Sudan says the drought and famine have escalated rapidly this year.

``At the beginning of the year, we thought that about 3 million Sudanese were affected,'' says Samir Basta of UNICEF. ``Two months later it was almost 5 million.

``Our best guess now is that 8 to 9 million are affected. Numbers are imprecise in Africa but you can see the scale of it all.''

Some 11/2 million Sudanese have been displaced from their home villages, Basta said, and are now wandering over the east, west, and south of the country.

``Instead of the 200,000 children under five who normally die each year in the Sudan, the rate today is closer to 750,000 a year,'' Basta added.

Untold numbers of Sudanese are trekking with their camels, goats, and donkeys toward the nearest towns or toward the Nile River.

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``They are moving westward from the Red Sea hills in the north and south to Kassala,'' said Abdullah Jallab, director of information for the Sudanese government. He sketched a map on a piece of paper to illustrate.

``From Kordofan in the west people are now drifting back east toward the Nile. Many, many people from the west have migrated eastward to the city of Omdurman across the Nile from Khartoum. The previous government didn't want them so close to the capital but they are there anyway.''

Abdullah Jallab returned to Khartoum a year ago from London, where he had been in the Sudanese Embassy.

``When I visited my home town, an oasis in Kordofan, I was shocked,'' he said.

``In all my life I had never seen nomads come to the edge of our town and camp for water. But I saw them, and they're still there.''

In Khartoum, Western residents report more and more ragged children knocking at their back doors and begging for food at 3 p.m., the end of the usual lunch hour here.

``I don't know if they are from the city or from outlying areas, but I've lived here for almost four years and I've never seen such begging before,'' said one woman from France.

Public water supplies have run out or are almost exhausted in major population centers, including Port Sudan in the north, El Obeid and Kadugli in the west, and Wau and Juba to the south.

``When you turn on the tap in Juba, half the time nothing comes out,'' says Samir Basta, who was just back from there.

According to another returned visitor, there is now no public water supply at all in El Obeid, a center of more than 100,000 people.

What is to be done?

Hassan Attiya, Sudan's deputy commissioner for refugees, wants a Western airlift of grain to refugees from Chad in the west.

Saudi Arabia, he says, has run several helicopter flights from Jiddah to a camp of 5,000 it is supporting near Geneina in the far west close to the border with Chad. The French, he said, had also provided a helicopter for several food airlifts to the same region.

Attiya says he has not formally asked the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Poul Hartling, in Geneva for an airlift, but that he may do so.

The commissioner was giving much help, but the western problem was extremely difficult.

Although Ethiopian refugees in the east were more numerous, they were closer to Port Sudan, where grain relief shipments come in. Distances are so vast in Sudan that Chadian refugees were too far away for quick resupply.

If heavy rains do begin in July, as the Sudanese devoutly hope, the sandy roads in Kordofan will remain passable, but the valleys and depressions through which they wind will block them, Attiya said.

Often there is but a single road. If it is blocked, nothing can get through.

``We need to build up stockpiles in the west as quickly as possible,'' Attiya said. ``Right now our people in Geneina say they have no relief supplies at all. . . . That scares me.''

UNICEF's Samir Basta, an Egyptian who has worked for the World Bank in Washington, says much water exists underground in Sudan. Mr. Basta has 12 drilling rigs in the country looking for it. The country needs more rigs, he says, but they cost up to a quarter of a million dollars each. They also require skilled men to operate.

Most of all, but least likely, analysts say, this part of Africa needs settlements to the various civil wars which impede the flow of aid: the war between Ethiopian secessionists and the government in Addis Ababa, between north and south in Sudan, and between north and south in Chad.

For the moment Sudanese officials, citing the lack of rain in recent years and what they call mismanagement and delays by ousted President Jaafar Nimeiry, say they have no choice but to ask Western donors for more and more food.

``We cannot support such huge numbers of refugees here for ever,'' says Hassan Attiya.

``Our own people are beginning to criticize us for the presence of so many refugees. They think they will be here and never go home.''

The most urgent need is for more trucks to carry grain inland, and for aircraft to conquer Sudan's huge distances.

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