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The `Food Weapon' and Famine in the Sudan

FOUR years ago, famine ravaged Ethiopia, killing hundreds of thousands of people. Shocked by horrific news reports, the American people and government sponsored an emergency feeding program that saved countless lives. We wondered how the world could have allowed such massive starvation to occur, and we vowed that such a tragedy would never happen again. Yet today, a similar if not worse disaster has hit the Sudan, Ethiopia's next-door neighbor. International relief workers estimate that in 1988 alone, 260,000 Sudanese died of starvation - an unfolding catastrophe the world has yet to acknowledge. Fortunately, the United States can make a difference; we are closely allied with Sudan, and should insist that the Khartoum government immediately allow massive relief into the southern provinces where food is desperately needed. But speed is crucial - President Bush must put the hunger crisis in Sudan near the top of his agenda.

Recently, I sent a number of my staff with a delegation to Ethiopia and Sudan to investigate the extent of the current disaster. Their report was nothing short of shocking. An estimated 1 million Sudanese have died of starvation since 1983. Famine and warfare have created 2 million refugees, who are migrating across Sudan in search of food and shelter.

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Scenes reminiscent of the Ethiopian famine are unfolding right now in southern Sudan. In the community of Abyei, where 10,000 people died of hunger last year, malnutrition killed virtually all children under the age of two. Riots are a common occurrence as people attack meager piles of relief grain out of fear that there will not be enough for everyone.

The 1984 Ethiopian famine was primarily caused by a natural disaster - a devastating drought. The most frustrating aspect of the Sudanese famine is that it is man-made, the result of a civil war between the Moslem north and the Christian and animist south. There is ample food in certain parts of Sudan, and scores of relief workers anxious to distribute it, yet the grain cannot reach the people who need it. Both sides in the civil conflict use food as a weapon and are reluctant to allow relief to be brought to civilians on the opposite side.

The tragedy of Sudan is that those in power seem to lack the commitment to feed their starving citizens. The government, based in the northern city of Khartoum, has made it virtually impossible for foreign relief workers to reach the quarter of the population, 6 million people, who live in the south. Travel permits for relief workers are routinely denied, landing rights for planes withheld and other bureaucratic barriers erected.

The Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the rebel group fighting the government in the civil war, is equally guilty of thwarting food distribution. In September, the rebels viciously attacked a convoy containing United Nations relief. They murdered dozens of workers and destroyed trucks carrying over 200 tons of grain. In late October, a proposed US food airlift into the government-held town of Aweil was scuttled when the SPLA refused to tolerate the delivery unless food was also brought to a nearby rebel-controlled village.

Relief workers and international observers agree that the only way to end the famine in Sudan is to end the civil war. A temporary cease-fire is essential so that food can be safely transported to starving civilians in the war zone. In a truly historic move, the rebels signed a peace agreement with a faction of the Khartoum government in November. The Sudanese parliament, however, rejected the accord in favor of one endorsed by Prime Minister Sadiq al Mahdi.

President Bush must bring pressure on Khartoum to immediately implement a cease-fire and affect a safe-passage accord so that food can reach the starving population. There is an extremely narrow window of opportunity - food must be transported before the rains begin again in April and the roads become impassable.

The time has come for the US to exert its considerable political influence on officials in Khartoum to change that government's discriminatory food policies. We must demand accountability from Sudan for the high levels of US aid it receives - over $100 million in fiscal 1989, the highest of any nation in Sub-Saharan Africa. And we must criticize the food-as-a-weapon policies of both the government and the rebels.

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The lesson from the 1984 famine in Ethiopia was that the world reacted too late to prevent human tragedy there. Sudan is on the brink of a similar disaster, but so far the US has stood on the sidelines, unwilling to take decisive action that could prevent massive and deliberate famine. When the history of this tragedy is written, will we be guilty of the crime of starvation because we did not act as quickly or as forcefully as possible?

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