AKUEM, Sudan -- Ajok Luah Luah, 25, a young mother of upright bearing but dwindling strength, is the anguished face of famine-threatened Sudan today.
For three days, she has eaten nothing but wild leaves, walking by night, sheltering under the shade trees by day, all the time cradling her 14-month-old baby in her arms as she flees from civil war.
Her little daughter is sick, coughing and perspiring with fever; her hair is copper-tinted, the tell-tale sign of malnutrition.
Ajok still suckles the baby at breasts that may soon be as arid as the terrain across which she trudges in her soiled cream and purple garb, a figure of wretchedness.
She is just one of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands facing starvation in this benighted place.
"Time has basically run out," says Diane de Guzman, field program manager for southern Sudan with Britain's Save the Children Fund.
Fifteen years of civil war and two years of drought have overwhelmed the centuries-old coping mechanisms of a people who know how to counter adversity but now hover daily between life and death.
"We knew that by this year, if nothing complicated their coping mechanisms, there could still be a disaster," says David Kugunda, of UNICEF. "Unfortunately, something happened, and that something was war."
The war between the Muslim-led government forces of the north and the secessionist Christians and animists -- believers in traditional spirits -- of the south intensified earlier this year.
It is a seemingly endless conflict in which arms are more plentiful than food, with the government said to be supplied by China, Iraq, Iran and Malaysia and the rebels getting arms through Uganda and Eritrea. Neither side seems able to win.
At peace talks this month in Nairobi, Kenya, the rebels obtained the promise of a referendum on independence for the south but rejected the government's offer of a cease-fire, suspecting that the government forces wanted time to recover from losing battles.
The rebels are poised to take garrison towns in Bahr el Ghazal.
Displaced by the ebb and flow of the conflict, which has left their villages razed, their homes and crops burned, people and livestock seized, the refugees have been deprived of all means of self-sufficiency.
The Islamic government's reaction to the food crisis has been confused. In February, when the rebels were on the offensive, it banned all relief flights.
"The government has been using food as a weapon of war," says one aid program manager, asking not to be named.
Then, this month, the government finally agreed that five C-130 Hercules and three Buffalo cargo planes could have unfettered access to the hunger area for the month of May. Khartoum authorizes flights on a month-by-month basis.
There is, however, suspicion now that Khartoum's belated acquiescence is cruelly timed.
"I'm afraid Khartoum may have almost set us up here to fail," says de Guzman: "Now it is just too late, and they are going to say, 'We gave you the planes, and people are still dying. You guys failed.' That's what really worries me."
And as if the conflict itself were not enough, help from international aid donors has been slow in coming.
The major donor countries played down the first warning signals from October's annual assessment by the World Food Program. Only after the fighting displaced 100,000 refugees around the city of Wau in January did they respond to an emergency appeal with $28 million worth of aid.
The United States has provided 48 percent of the aid, supplying 8,500 tons of food worth $2.4 million. With transport included, the U.S. contribution has cost $13.3 million.
The original estimate by the World Food Program was that 30 percent of the 1.5 million people in the region might be victims of the seasonal "hunger gap," facing a calorie deficit of 15 percent to 20 percent.
Now the calculation is that 40 percent of the population lacks up to 40 percent of the normal diet.
Could have acted earlier
"It didn't have to reach this level," says Jason Matus, food economic officer with the WFP. "We could have responded earlier with less if we had had the [airlift] capacity and the access."
Barbara Barton, WFP spokeswoman in Nairobi, says, "Many of the people are now starting to move in search of food."
In Gogrial County, where aid agencies are expected to feed 250,000, they now have an additional 100,000 hungry war refugees.
East Aweil County, where the local population of 203,000 is unable to feed itself, is expected to become the haven for as many as 300,000 fugitives from the fighting in West Aweil.
People have been reduced to eating the seed they were saving to plant for the late August harvest.
They frequently also eat the aid seed, although it is chemically treated and makes them sick. To counter this, aid agencies are trying to distribute food and seed simultaneously, hoping to get the seed in the ground before it is consumed.
But much of the land still lies fallow, baking ever harder under the relentless equatorial sun.
"There's not enough land being cultivated out there," says de Guzman. "I don't see how we can possibly have a harvest that can resolve this situation. It may just stave it off a little bit."
Another problem: The international seed is neither suited to the weather here nor resistant to local pests. Agriculturists estimate that less than half the available land will be cultivated, and the germination rate on that land will be less than 40 percent.
Specter of continued drought
Most ominous of all, the rains that should have started in mid-April have yet to fall, raising the specter of a third annual drought to deprive the earth of new life.
This has not been officially declared a famine, when people, deprived of all the means of survival, die like flies -- the babies first, then the frail, followed by those whose ebbing strength is finally overcome.
Technically, it is being called "a hunger gap," or "a food deficit." But the distinction is hard to see.
"There is nothing, no food," says Nyal Chan Nyal, elderly chief of the village of Akon. "I tell my people they have to be patient."
But how many more days can Njibol Deng, already a skeletal figure, sit in the blazing heat loosening the earth with a hand-broom of dried grass in search of tiny brownish-red akaudo seeds, a form of wild rice.
This day, she has been here since sunrise, her pot-bellied daughter, Ayen Akol, 5, at her feet.
She fled from the fighting around her home at Agalit in August last year and came here to join her mother-in-law, who had nothing to offer but the barest of shelter.
She sits with her legs straight out, her back erect, methodically removing the seed from the dirt, first winnowing it from one basket to another, then rubbing it through her hands.
In six hours of painstaking separation, she has produced about a pound of seed, insufficient for herself, two children and her mother-in-law. She must scrape on to live another day.
Awien Dut's diet today will be the kernels of the tamarind fruit, their hard shells roasted off in the small fire of dried grass she is tending. Already the 36-year-old and her six children have nibbled the fruit off the nuts.
"Look at me," she says, kneeling up to show her skinny frame. "The hunger shows in my body." Not since February has she eaten anything but wild fruits, roots and seeds, she says.
It is a diet that would be suitable as supplemental food. Eaten exclusively, it produces stomach problems and diarrhea, particularly among children. But for weeks, this has been the staple food of thousands of Sudanese.
In the jargon of official aid papers, it is termed "famine wild food" -- the last chance of survival without outside help.
Suffering of children
"The worst thing is the kids," says Buzz Sharp, head of the World Food Program's food economics office in Lokichokio, Kenya, the jumping-off place for most aid agencies.
He has seen 800 children -- 130 of them severely malnourished -- at a feeding station run by the Belgium branch of Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) in the village of Ajiep.
"If they were anywhere else, they would be in hospital having 12 feeds a day," he says. "That is not going to happen. If a lot of them live, it will be a miracle."
Medecins Sans Frontieres is caring for 3,000 children, 25 percent of them severely malnourished -- defined as at least a third under normal body weight.
"That is a lot for children," says Dr. Els Mathieu, MSF's medical coordinator for southern Sudan. "It is getting closer and closer to famine. Now people are starving.
"We have also adults dying. I think now you can say it will become a famine."
The rainy season, if and when it starts, will bring the onset of mosquito-borne malaria. It will also make delivery of aid, by road and air, more difficult.
To reach the worst-hit areas takes a three-hour flight over largely uninhabited terrain to land on a stretch of red earth, cleared in the bush and little longer than a football field, in Bahr el Ghazal.
Akuem is in East Aweil County, a normally self-sufficient region that today is almost totally dependent on outside help. A campaign by government forces in neighboring West Aweil has started an exodus.
"It is an organized war," says Aleu Akechak Jok, commissioner of West Aweil, who arrived here with the bulk of his people last weekend.
"This place is far from the enemy. It is the nearest airstrip, and it is beside a river," he added, explaining his decision to lead the way here. "Anybody from outside who wants to help us will find it easier here."
Ajok Luah Luah, her daughter still in her arms, says she ran away from the village of Nyamlell, in West Aweil, because most of the people were killed.
"I had to escape with my child," she says. "The houses were burning. I decided to walk at night for cover. I was hiding and walking. For three days, I didn't stop. Now I need medicine for my child -- and water."
Four babies died of thirst on the 80-mile trek, according to Simon Woh, representative of the rebels' Sudanese Relief and Rehabilitation Association.
Now hundreds of families squat under shade trees, waiting for help. They can do little, except scratch for wild roots or pick leaves, to fend for themselves.
Food from the sky
Alerted to the local crisis, the World Food Program arranges two immediate 32-ton food drops. The white bags of sorghum and lentils separate from their wooden pallets and cascade down like huge snowflakes as a C-130 sharply tips up its nose 700 feet over the drop zone.
A few bags burst on impact. The hundreds squatting around the area watch and wait. They have been told that the bags will be shared under a system established among the aid agencies, local chiefs and women leaders.
Men with sticks patrol the perimeter, threatening to strike anyone who advances.
The bags are collected and neatly stacked.
Then chaos breaks out. The women run to the cleared drop zone. They fall to their knees, scrambling to get as much food spilled from the burst bags as their bowls will hold. The dust flies as they push and shove, scrape and grab for a few tiny grains.
"To see a Mum on her knees with a baby on one breast and another on her hand, groveling around in the dust, just shows the level of desperation of these people," says Sharp.
Not far from the drop zone, Boll Akok has slaughtered a cow in the hope of making some money to buy perhaps 60 pounds of grain, enough to give him food and seed, but no one has any cash -- or grain to barter -- and the meat is turning black in the heat of the sun.
For a Dinka to kill a cow is equivalent to a Westerner selling off the family silver. Cows here are the symbols of wealth, used for dowries, in ceremonies, but rarely slaughtered for meat.
"You cannot kill a cow if you are not dying," says Luka Lual Lual, 60, a farmer and entrepreneur reputed to be the richest man in Akon, whose herd of 500 cattle has been reduced to 200 since he was forced to flee the fighting last year.
"But if you are dying, you have no option," he says.
Thus, the growing hunger, ironically, has brought a surplus of beef.
In Akon today, auctioneer Mawien Deng has 20 head of cattle tied to stakes beneath a towering tamarind tree, where normally he might have two or three.
One of those waiting to be put on the block is the small white heifer brought here by Deng Deng, 38, a typically tall, thin Dinka, who has led the animal three hours from his riverside tukul -- the traditional round, thatched home in these parts -- at Akerkaui.
"I would not sell it if I wasn't hungry," says the father of four. "I am feeling ashamed, but because of the children what can I do?"
A year ago he had four cows. Now he is left with one milk cow. When he left home early in the morning, his wife, Acol Madut, 23, reassured him: "You take it to the market, and if there is a good price, then that is for the survival of our children."
Perhaps Deng's animal will end up on Benjamin Aguang's butcher stall, less than 50 yards away from the auction. Meat prices, he says, have come down by a third or more in a few months, just as grain prices have shot up.
"To save their lives, that's why they are killing the cows," he says.
"It is the worst time. They are starving. They are suffering."
Pub Date: 5/17/98