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The Long Walk To Flee Famine In Sudan's South

THOUGH weak, and now orphaned, 8-year-old Chol Atem so far has managed to survive what United Nations officials say is the worst famine in the world.

By walking about 250 miles to escape fighting between rival rebel factions in his hometown of Kongor, Chol reached this area, near the Ugandan border, where more than 100,000 southern Sudanese are getting emergency rations.

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"I saw people being killed [in Kongor]," says Chol, wearing a soiled brown shirt and shorts, squatting barefoot on the ground at an outdoor feeding center here supplied by the US-based relief agency Catholic Relief Services (CRS). "Our cows were taken.

"My mother died on the way," he adds, in a faint voice. "My father brought me here, but he also died. My brother died. Now my uncle's wife cares for me."

Tens of thousands of southerners have perished in the famine, most after fleeing fighting among rival rebel groups engaged in a civil war with the northern government. About half of the approximately 1.5 million people requiring food and other aid in southern Sudan are totally dependent on such help to stay alive, according to the UN.

Though hampered by lack of funding, UN agencies and private relief groups are expanding the number of relief airlifts and personnel in the south, spurred on by fresh evidence of the severe need. Relief officials would like to send a greater share of food overland, which is cheaper than air transport, but they lack trucks and face bad road conditions that will worsen with rains that are likely to begin within two months. `Logistical nightmare'

"It's a logistical nightmare," one relief official says.

"The needs for emergency assistance in southern Sudan should have the highest priority because nowhere else in the world are people in such dire straits," says Catherine Bertini, executive director of the UN World Food Programme (WFP).

Although many places without airstrips have not been visited, aid organizations are forming a picture of the situation. "It's as bad as it was in Somalia, but the war in Sudan has been going on a lot longer," says Mary McVay of the CRS office in Nairobi, Kenya. "In addition to relief, we need a massive diplomatic effort to bring peace to southern Sudan."

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"I saw people sitting under trees waiting to die," says a Western relief worker who last month visited a town where there has been heavy rebel fighting.

WFP food monitor Jean Francois Darcq who was nearly killed during a battle in late March between rebels in Kongor, says many people "looked like skeletons" when he arrived in Kongor with the first airlift in late February. The renewed fighting has forced thousands to flee, he says.

In areas where there has been heavy fighting, death rates cited in a draft report by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are about 20 times the norm for Africa, says the Western relief official.

In some areas, 20 percent to 50 percent of the people have died in the past year, according to the UN's Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS). The CDC draft report cites malnutrition rates of about 80 percent in camps for the displaced, about half of it severe.

After three international relief workers and a journalist were killed by Sudanese rebels near Ame last September in circumstances still disputed by rival rebel groups, the UN and most relief agencies pulled out. CRS stayed. And with funding primarily from the United States government, CRS has been the main provider of food in this area.

Young Chol is getting extra meals here at a special feeding center in the Ame camp for the displaced. But the CDC team visiting the area found that many children five years old and younger are malnourished.

Often parents are too occupied with the day-to-day survival of the family to bring a malnourished child to the special feeding center. And there are not enough relief personnel to tend to each child in such centers or to scout out critical cases and bring them to the centers. Too tired to eat

Chol, complaining of pain, said he could not eat the food in a green plastic bowl in front of him. "I'm tired," he said.

There are only four doctors serving the more than 100,000 displaced Sudanese camped in this area, says Ahoy Bellario Ngong, one of the four. The sick can reach the single, overcrowded local hospital only by hitchhiking, he says.

Outside the areas where rebels have been fighting, conditions in southern Sudan range from "OK," to areas "in deep trouble," OLS director Philip O'Brien says. Drought, floods, and disease have hit some parts of the south.

The Sudan government has been more cooperative than in recent years in allowing relief flights to go to many, though not all, of the known southern areas needing aid, Mr. O'Brien says. But the Western relief official cautions that the government often has slowed relief to areas under its control.

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