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In Sudan, a `Famine Triangle'

Sparring rebel factions, forcing civilians to flee, complicate relief agencies' efforts

YOUNG Akee Reech scoops up high protein porridge with a small, clam-like shell from an orange, plastic bowl at an emergency feeding center here. Though still not fully recovered from near-starvation, he is among the more fortunate in this region.

Fighting between two rival rebel groups in this "famine triangle" - a part of Sudan bounded by the towns of Kongor, Waat, and Ayod - has led to the deaths of about one of every three people, or an estimated 80,000 people in 1992 alone, according to the United Nations. Most were killed in cross-fire or by starvation in the swamps or bush where they fled for their lives.

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The 165,000 civilians the UN estimates were still living in the triangle at the beginning of 1993 continue to face this double threat, as unreconciled rebel factions continue to clash periodically. Such clashes regularly interrupt relief operations here. Reconciliation effort fails

The UN estimates several hundred thousand Sudanese, mostly civilians, have died in southern Sudan since civil war resumed in 1983. The southern-based Christian and animist rebels are fighting the northern Islamic government over disagreements on power sharing and religious freedom. Efforts to reconcile two southern rebel factions, which split in mid-1991 over whether to press for independence from the Islamic regime in Khartoum, have failed.

Donald Petterson, United States ambassador to Sudan, has met several times with representatives of the two factions, led by John Garang and Riek Machar. The envoy wants to win their compliance with a US-brokered agreement to withdraw their troops from the triangle. Both factions signed the agreement on May 28.

But both sides, mutually distrustful, are waiting for the other to withdraw first.

The tense stand-off and the shifting control of towns and villages have made it difficult for the 700,000 people in southern Sudan who currently depend on food relief to stay alive, UN officials say. Each new round of fighting sends more civilians fleeing.

When forces loyal to rebel leader Machar seized Kongor two years ago, Akee's mother, Ayen Kuir, joined a mass of residents in the area who fled to a vast swamp. Many died there from hunger.

"We were eating water lilies and some fish," says Mrs. Kuir. "Life was very difficult."

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Then at the end of March, Mr. Garang's troops seized Kongor. Many civilians who had returned to Kongor died in the fighting; the rest fled again. Deliveries of relief food were halted.

In mid-May Kuir returned, bringing Akee and his two-year-old sister Yom here for the food the Irish agency Goal distributes. Akee "was at the point of death," Kuir recalls.

Today, Akee and hundreds of other children are being fed by Goal, and more recently, Concern, another Irish relief group that has joined the effort. "They're starting to look better," says Concern nurse Jacinta Miller at the agency's feeding center here.

Some children are clearly still in danger. Abiel, a small boy in a blue shirt, sits expressionless on the cement floor of the Concern feeding center. While most of the other children manage at least a smile, Abiel cannot, though he does grasp a cup of milk and drink it.

His sister, Adhieu, brought him here three days ago. Two other children in the family have already died.

About half the children given supplementary, emergency rations here are severely malnourished; the rest are moderately so, relief workers say.

Because the UN and the Garang rebels consider this town subject to surprise attack from forces loyal to Machar, relief workers are not allowed to stay overnight. So they fly more than three hours round trip each day from a UN base camp in Lokichokio, Kenya.

Those based in Waat, north of here, had to fly even farther until recently given permission to stay overnight. Some of the relief workers in southern Sudan have become some of the world's longest-distance air commuters, maintaining an exhausting dawn-to-dusk routine. Rebels steal relief food

And while relief workers are away from famine-hit towns such as this one, rebels steal some of the relief food intended for starving children and women. "That's how they [the rebels] are being fed in the demilitarized zone," says James Breen, a senior consultant for the UN's World Food Programme.

"Where we haven't got people on the ground, our direct losses [of relief supplies] increase dramatically," says Philip O'Brien, director of the UN's Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS).

But the famine triangle is "not typical" of conditions in southern Sudan, says Sally Burnheim, an OLS spokesperson in Nairobi, Kenya. In other areas where there has been less fighting, more relief work has been possible. For example, this year in southern Sudan as a whole, some 5,000 children and 500,000 cattle were vaccinated against disease, and 500 metric tons of seeds and 33,000 farming tools were distributed through the United Nation's Children's Fund, she says.

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