THIET, Sudan -- They are always there. They wait, watching, patient. Every now and again they soar from the treetops in lazy flight, as an owner might amble about to inspect his property.
They will get their fill, the vultures of southern Sudan. Death is the only ample harvest in this land. The weak ones -- animal or human -- fall in the dirt, and there is often no extra strength to cover them.
The giant birds may seem to smile as the world turns away. No one wants to hear of more people starving in Africa. But the starving people are here. Survival depends on whether someone gives them food. For they have nothing.
What is happening in Sudan may already have eclipsed the death tolls of other standard bearers of misery, Somalia and the Balkans. Here it could become much, much worse.
Herman Cohen, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, has called it "one of the world's darkest humanitarian nightmares . . . a chaotic territory where civil war, disease, homelessness and hunger form a tapestry of tragedy for millions of Sudanese."
His words give voice to the weak resignation of a man here so thin that he seems just a clatter of bones. His wrinkled skin is overlaid with rags; he leans hard on a wooden branch to stand.
"You think I am old. I am not," he whispers. He says his name is Anthony Atiaktak and that he used to be a teacher.
"I am only 30. I am sick, and I am hungry," he says. "I have walked five days without food and waited three days here. Tomorrow you will not find me."
Southern Sudan has long been a forgotten tragedy. Remote and inaccessible, it is a place the size of Texas with few good roads and even fewer visitors. But in the name of religion, and culture, and power, men have long laid war on this land.
For the last decade, a grim civil war has been waged. The government of the north, which seeks to fashion an Islamic country, is fighting non-Muslim rebels in the south. The southerners historically have been oppressed by the north, and they resent Arab culture's rule over their traditional African ways.
But the southern rebels also have turned on each other. When not fighting the government, they have clashed in grabs for power, for territory and to satisfy old tribal grudges.
The fighting has whisked more than 3 million people about the countryside like wind-blown leaves. They have been forced from one temporary haven to the next, walking many miles, some for many years.
This is not a fat land. It is a land of scorching drought, disease and frequent floods. Forced away from their cattle and their crops, cut off from any helping hand, the people quickly wither.
Maybe a half-million have died since the latest phase of the civil war began in 1983. That is the figure most often used. Nobody knows for sure. By comparison, similar guesses put the death toll in Somalia at 350,000 and in Bosnia-Herzegovina at about half that.
But to measure death on such scale makes it falsely academic. The calculation takes away from the individual pain of fathers who lose sons, mothers who cradle cold babies, children who watch their parents die.
Such anguish goes untallied in remote places such as Thiet, a cluster of conical grass huts and decrepit brick buildings from colonial days.
Thiet sits on the western edge of the Sudd, a forbidding expanse of malarial lowlands. Until a United Nations worker arrived March no white person had been in this area since the British were evicted in 1956, according to village elders.
A conspiracy of nature and man gives birth to the misery here. Two years of hard rains in the Sudd drowned cattle and washed away crops. The civil war blocked trade or assistance from the north that could have buffered the blow.
A rumor of food
Clustered at Thiet in the shade of trees sit nearly 7,000 people. They walked in from the Sudd, some as far as 130 miles, when word passed that food was coming here. Many are naked; others are dressed in goatskins. All are thin. They say they have eaten leaves and bitter nuts to survive.
These are the strong ones. They will collect 60 pounds of corn in bags marked "USA" in red, white and blue, and walk with the grain on their heads to weaker family members left behind.
Awem Atluwi walked eight days to get here. Of her seven children, four are dead of hunger and disease. Her husband was killed two years ago, and her only assets, five cows, have been felled by anthrax.
"I must take food back to them," she says of her remaining family members. "I do not know if they will be alive when I get there."
The first medicine to arrive in the area in 10 years came by plane this month. Yosef Mathuc Mau, a medical assistant trained years ago in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, sets up a rickety table in an old store and begins to pass out pills and ointments.
"It's not enough," he says. The sickly throng that presses toward his makeshift examining table reflects the odds against his task. He has a few weak antibiotics. They have leprosy, malaria, meningitis and jungle infections that have festered for years.
On a crumbling wall in the store are fading drawings of a lion hunt. The Africans are drawn as strong, beefy men, a mockery of the frail living ones below them.
Klaus Feiling, a U.N. field worker, watches the distribution with a hand calculator, wearing Hawaiian shorts and a baseball cap.
"This is a very happy day for Thiet," he says. "For the first time in 10 years, the world has seen them and dropped down from the sky in an airplane to help."
Soon the camp resounds with a rhythmic thump as the corn is pounded into meal with heavy wooden poles. It is hours of work before the pulp is mixed with water and cooked over fires started without matches.
The tragedy in southern Sudan is slowly reaching the eyes of the world. The glow of moral indignation that sent U.S. Marines into nearby Somalia to help feed the hungry has cast a questioning light on Sudan.
The U.S. ambassador to Sudan, Donald Petterson, made a rare visit to the south last month and returned to describe "horrific suffering . . . walking skeletons, people on the verge of death, people riddled with diseases."
A survey last month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta found 32 percent to 81 percent of the children at four southern Sudan locations to be malnourished, and mortality rates 10 times higher than average.
The United States spent $60 million on humanitarian aid in Sudan last year and probably will spend $67 million or more this year. U.S. officials have hinted at intervening as in Somalia but acknowledge privately that such suggestions are meant only to pressure the combatants to reach an accord.
Although the suffering and violence are comparable to Somalia's, the two countries are vastly different in other ways. Sudan covers a huge territory and has a functioning central government with its own armed forces. Getting U.N. support for intervention against a recognized government would be difficult.
The wisest course, Western officials say, is to get through as much food as possible.
Relief organizations, toiling with little publicity, meager funds and lots of danger, suddenly find themselves with offers of Hercules transport planes to rush in quantities of food.
The dusty U.N. base camp in Lokichokio, Kenya, just south of the Sudanese border, is a bustling airstrip. The temporary tents set up in 1989 for Operation Lifeline Sudan are being joined by concrete buildings.
But the disaster far outstrips their resources.
"We are finding out we grossly underestimated the size of the problem," says Gordon Wagner, an official of the U.S. Agency for International Development program in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. "We're finding more as we reach out into the areas."
Some areas remain a dark hole. In the Nuba Mountains, still closed to visitors, there are allegations of a massacre last Christmas by government forces, with estimates of up to 6,000 dead.
It was one in a catalog of alleged atrocities that accompany the conflict in Sudan between the Arab culture of the north and the African culture of the south.
The most recent phase of the conflict, the civil war that began in 1983, worsened after 1989. A military coup in Khartoum brought to power a government vowing to impose Islamic law, which is anathema to southern Sudanese, who practice Christianity and animist religions.
The southerners have long felt exploited by the north, which once sold natives of the south as slaves. Although the rebel groups are divided over whether they wish to form a separate country, they are united in rejecting control from Khartoum.
"We are fighting a holy war between Arabs and Africans, between Christians and Muslims, between our culture and theirs," said Ambrose Kot, a member of a rebel faction near the Ugandan border.
There are recent signs of an easing in the pressure from the government. When government attacks last year led to a pullout of vital relief supplies and a condemnation in December by the United Nations, the Khartoum government began to bend.
Gen. Omar Hassan Ahmed al-Bashir, the prime minister, allowed Pope John Paul II to visit in February and endured a tongue-lashing in the pontiff's speech before thousands of people in Khartoum. The government agreed to a cease-fire, put off its usual dry-season offensive and opened some areas to relief operations.
But optimism is undercut by Sudan's seemingly fatal attraction to war. A rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army faction led by John Garang began to move against towns held by opposing SPLA rebel factions last month, prompting the United Nations to pull back relief workers again.
Before that was done, a U.N. field worker was stripped, $l terrorized and shot at by Mr. Garang's soldiers but escaped with his life. It was an unneeded reminder of the ambush last fall that killed three aid workers and a journalist.
"I cannot believe how they've screwed it up," said Mr. Wagner of the Agency for International Development, clearly furious at this latest complication. "Every time you feel like they are getting some legitimacy, somebody botches it up."
The weak and the powerless pay the price for those complications. Each delay cuts into the timeliness of rations brought for those who have no power, no time.
Eyes of the starving
From the starving, there is a curious, level look. In infants, it is neither pleading nor accusatory. They are guileless, too young to understand that they have been wronged. They never learned that they have a right to food, a right to live.
Adults have no such innocence. Their eyes list the injustices done them. The old woman begs for food with a look and a feeble gesture to her mouth. The old man in rags struggles to stand and whispers with hoarse dignity that he will be dead by tomorrow.
The U.N. World Food Program and a handful of other organizations are hauling tons of food into southern Sudan, but the obstacles are enormous.
Because of the war, they cannot bring food from the north to feed southern areas under rebel control. They must bring supplies from Kenya.
Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services brings 60-truck convoys through Uganda, but the terrain and governmental delays often make it a monthlong trip. The United Nations serves more remote areas by plane but only recently has been able to borrow from Somalia two big C-130 transports capable of carrying large quantities of food.
In January, the Khartoum government allowed the first barge to plow up the Nile River with 2,400 tons of grain. It was looted eight times on the two-month trip and arrived in the destination of Juba with much of its original load missing.
Still, relief workers have been encouraged at the amount of food they are pushing into the country before the rainy season. By next month, runways and dirt roads could become traps of mud. The emphasis now is on volume.
"It's not a sexy operation. Basically, we get the food there," says Ted Chaiban, head of the Catholic Relief Services Sudan operation in Nairobi. The agency resumed delivering food to an area near the Ugandan border when other relief organizations stopped after the slayings of the journalist and aid workers in September.
No one has admitted to the killings. Relief organizations were outraged because the crimes probably were committed by one of the rebel factions whose people were being fed by the workers.
Mr. Chaiban does not discount the dangers, but he dismisses questions about whether Catholic Relief Services should be there.
"All you have to do is see the people and -- as bad as it is -- imagine how it would have been if groups like CRS were not there," he says. "You just have to see, and you don't have to ask why we are there."
'What are we to do?'
In Ame, a refugee camp that gets Catholic Relief supplies,
Aquand Andok carries her 5-year-old son on her shoulder. He is dying, shrunken from hunger and disease.
"What are we to do?" she wonders, like thousands of others.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report found that 81 percent of the children in Ame were moderately or severely malnourished, even though Catholic Relief and a Norwegian relief group had been bringing food to the camp for five months. Deliveries have been too irregular, the camp officials say, and the food -- sorghum, corn and oil -- is often inadequate for children.
But the CDC finding also raised questions about whether food delivered to Ame was going instead to rebel soldiers. All relief operations in areas of fighting face the problem: Food for the victims often nourishes the war, as it was doing in Somalia.
Relief workers say they will be sure that all food gets to the needy only when there is a pact that ends the fighting between the government and the rebels, and among the rebels themselves.
"Until we get a cease-fire, it's like throwing money down a rathole," says Roger Schrock, who does relief work for the New Sudan Council of Churches.
TOMORROW: The painful odyssey of Sudan's children, orphans in a tomented land.
How To Help
Here is a list of some agencies helping in Somalia:
Adventist Development and Relief Agency International (ADRA), 12501 Columbia Pike, Silver Spring, MD 20904
AICF/USA (International Action Against Hunger), 815 15th Street, Suite 832, Washington, DC 20005
CARE, 660 First Avenue, Nw York, NY 10016
Catholic Relief Services, 209 W. Fayette Street, Baltimore, MD 21201-3443
International Rescue Committee, 386 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10016
Lutheran World Relief, 390 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10016-8804
Save the Children, Box 975, Westport, CT 06881
UNICEF, 331 East 38th St., New York, N.Y., 10016.