Southern Sudan fighting famine
By Bernard Barrett
Sudan thousands of displaced people are in urgent need of humanitarian
assistance: in the northern and eastern regions hit by floods
and in the South where famine has struck. The situation is especially
serious in the region of Bahr el Ghazal.
The road leading into Tonj forks at the market-place and
merges again on the other side. This small town in the Bahr
el Ghazal region of southern Sudan has seen its normal population
of around 600 swell in the last few months to between 8,000
and 12,000, as the famine that is ravaging the region drives
people here in search of food.
The market offers little in the way of sustenance, mainly
soap, cigarettes and other dry goods, but the two streets
on either side of it are crowded. Many people have found shelter
in abandoned stone buildings in the centre of town. Others
are huddled on the wide verandas or camped around small cooking
At one end of town, in a mission compound, the ICRC has set
up a feeding centre for Tonj’s most vulnerable residents,
such as the blind, the disabled and lepers. Here, 468 people
are served two meals a day consisting of maize flour, beans,
oil and salt.
At the far end of the compound, an old dispensary has been
turned into another kitchen, this one for severely malnourished
children and adults. Behind the main building, plastic tarpaulins
tied to the top of wooden poles protect the kitchen from sun
and rain. Beneath them, five large pots of maize porridge
and two of beans simmer over the fire.
All around the courtyard, people sit on the ground in well-ordered
groups and rows. Most have their plastic ICRC registration
cards dangling on strings around their necks. Lines of ashes
on the ground mark out the various sections of the compound.
Since the most urgent priority was to make food rapidly available,
there was no time to build fences or other methods of crowd
control, but the symbolic perimeters are scrupulously respected.
As each group is called, they form a queue and wait their
turn to receive a bowl of food. Each card is checked, and
if the description does not match the person, the card is
confiscated so as to discourage theft and other forms of preying
on the weak.
Once all 468 people are served, the staff look around for
the weakest of the new arrivals not yet registered at the
kitchen. The remaining food is divided amongst them. ICRC
nurse Corinne Borloz says that now the meal distribution system
has been set up they can start to diagnose and treat common
ailments, such as worms, while people wait for their food.
A new arrival
In the centre of Tonj is a third ICRC facility, this one
providing therapeutic milk and meals to children and breast-feeding
mothers. A large crowd is gathered outside the one-metre stone
wall surrounding the building. Inside, on one side of the
building, are twelve groups of children, each forming a circle.
ICRC staff stand in the middle of each circle handing out
mugfuls of Nutriset, an enriched milk formula. The 670 children
receive four feedings of milk and one meal of sorghum and
beans each day. They range in age from three to their early
teens. Many have no clothes, others are clad in a tattered
shirt or piece of cloth tied at the shoulder.
The area around the gate clears to reveal the naked and motionless
body of a teenage boy lying on the ground. Every bone and
joint stands out. The ICRC nutritionist in charge of the centre,
Jenny McMahon, spots him and runs over, waving urgently to
staff and shouting: “Who brought him here? How did he
get here?” She requisitions two men to carry the boy
to the shade of the veranda, where they prop him up against
a wall. He opens his eyes, but his stare is vacant. One of
the local staff estimates his age to be about 13 or 14. They
feed him a mug of the enriched milk. Between sips, he answers
questions in a barely audible voice.
His name is Marar and he has been walking for three days
from the town of Thiet, a distance, the Sudanese interpreter
adds, that a healthy adult would cover in eight hours. The
boy explains that he had started out from Warrap, walking
for 15 days to reach Thiet, where there is a feeding centre
run by a relief agency. It is only for children under ten,
however, and Marar was turned away, so he continued on to
Marar left Warrap after several members of his family died.First
his father succumbed to illness, then his mother and sister.
“There was hunger in Warrap,” he says. He didn’t
know what had become of the rest of his extended family.
After finishing the milk, he is given a bowl of maize flour
mixed with water, as well as beans and oil. Jenny McMahon
cautions him to eat slowly, saying he can take all afternoon.
Later, she fetches him a second serving of beans to add more
flavour and encourages him to finish the maize porridge. Marar
is returning to life now and his eyes have brightened.
“They recover very quickly once they start to eat,”
explains McMahon. “It’s a sure sign of extreme
starvation.” Marar is not only becoming more alert but
also more demanding. He wants lodging and a blanket, says
an interpreter. But tarpaulins and blankets have still to
be delivered to Tonj, and the centre is not organized or equipped
to shelter people. Marar’s case is serious, but he is
far from unique amongst the centre’s 670 children.
The boy is told he will have to find shelter in one of the
large stone buildings housing other displaced people across
the street. Marar is now strong enough to make his way slowly
over there, after being told he can come back to the centre
for more food in the morning.
Back in action
After an absence of 19 months following a serious security
incident, the ICRC was able to relaunch its field operations
in southern Sudan on 1 June 1998. During the stand-by period,
the ICRC maintained its 500-bed surgical hospital in Lokichokio,
in northern Kenya near the border with Sudan, as well as other
core activities such as cooperation with the Sudanese Red
Crescent, tracing and detention. Since it resumed its operations
inside southern Sudan, the number of locally hired and expatriate
staff has increased to over 500. Every week, six ICRC planes
transport an average of 100 tonnes of food, water and sanitation
as well as medical assistance items on 25 flights. In the
Bahr el Ghazal locations of Wau and Tonj, the ICRC is feeding
over 5,000 people, by serving over 63,300 meals per week.
As part of its integrated approach, the ICRC is also providing
medical assistance to the local health facilities and restoring
wells and bore holes to allow people access to clean water.
Building up strength
Back at the feeding centre, more circles have formed, this
time composed of 180 women, each holding an infant or small
child. The mothers receive two meals a day plus milk and are
encouraged to continue breast-feeding. One woman gently places
a small package on the ground next to her. She unwraps the
cloth to expose a tiny new born weighing less than one kilogram.
The mother says the delivery was not premature. With the help
of a Dinka translator, Jenny McMahon exhorts the mother to
eat and drink more. “You must consume more to provide
more milk or the baby will die,” she pleads.
At a staff meeting, some members suggest that the ration
is too generous and that it should be reduced to include more
people. McMahon disagrees. “We need to restore these
people to an acceptable level as quickly as possible,”
she counters, “so that they can move to the other kitchens,
and room can be made at the feeding centre for the new cases
of severe malnutrition that are surely on the way.”
“The people arriving now,” she says, “are
walking for six to ten miles to get here, but as word spreads,
more will come from further and further away.”
Later, she confides that an additional kitchen will soon be
required in Tonj, but she worries that other kitchens should
also be set up in the surrounding communities to avoid encouraging
even more people to converge on the town.
Bernard Barrett is the ICRC’s information officer in
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