EL OBEID, Sudan — In a backwater of this huge famine relief camp, well removed from the spotless medical clinic that Vice President George Bush toured Wednesday, a cluster of women and children huddled in front of their makeshift hut, wailing loudly, when they saw an American approach. Instantly, the wailing stopped.
A wizened woman stepped forward and clasped his hands. Ten more hands followed. A chant arose--"Bush! Bush! Bush!"--and sailed through the dust-filled air until heads cocked for yards around.
By the time the stunned American reporter returned to the clinic, he was trailed by at least 80 people, each singing the praises of the man many believed would bring with him food and decent shelter--maybe even some desperately needed rain.
The United States is not beloved everywhere in Sudan, but to the 33,000 malnourished squatters of El Obeid, no American is ugly.
"They think we're saviors," one U.S. relief worker said, and to a degree, they are right. In the view of many, the United States is largely responsible for staving off a famine that now threatens up to 7 million refugees and Sudanese citizens, a figure that dwarfs the hunger crisis in Ethiopia.
In the face of record drought, the American government is shipping in about 800,000 tons of wheat and sorghum to parched Sudanese towns like El Obeid. Private U.S. donors are sending thousands of tons more.
"U.S. aid" is now an Arabic noun here. And even as disease and exposure claim a steadily rising toll, the victims of El Obeid believed Wednesday that Bush would personally deliver more than kind words.
"I am asking for dura (sorghum), for foodstuffs, for dressing, blankets and shelter," Nafisa Mousa Abu Shama, a hopeful young mother, said as she awaited Bush's arrival. "And for sugar and tea, because I am fond of them and I have none."
For her, and for thousands of others who crouched for hours in the sun awaiting Bush's arrival, there is little of anything. El Obeid is touted as the best of the half-dozen drought camps in Sudan west of the Nile, yet its residents live in fragile huts made of bramble covered with discarded sorghum sacks.
Childhood Illness Rampant
Pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses are rampant, especially among children, and after vaccine and syringes ran out, a measles epidemic swept the camp in January. There are three doctors, one for each 11,000 residents.
"That's probably a higher density of doctors than in Khartoum," the national capital, one relief worker said. "But Khartoum isn't full of malnourished children."
So far, the doctors are fighting a losing battle. A U.N. Children's Fund survey claims that the mortality rate at El Obeid has grown ninefold since December, to 74 deaths per 1,000 residents per year. Diarrhea and measles are major killers. Youngsters crippled by polio occasionally can be seen crawling through the inch-thick dust.
"All of them are malnourished," said Said Abdul Hamid, a 29-year-old physician at the camp clinic. "Most of the kids, as you see, come here with respiratory tract infections." Weakness from hunger, he said, makes them vulnerable even to minor illnesses.
However, because there is some food and water here, drought victims still throng to the camp. What began as a cluster of lean-tos in early November was home to 19,000 people in December and 28,000 in mid-January.
Nafisa, an early settler, walked 20 miles with her two children to El Obeid after her husband vanished. Others come on foot and by truck from as far as 100 miles away.
Many might die, Hamid said, were it not for the two meals, totaling about 1,300 calories, ladled out daily from the camp's primitive kitchen. Wednesday's meal, postponed 90 minutes so the vice president could witness the feeding, was neima --a porridge of sorghum, eggs, sugar, salt and milk.
The sorghum--identifiable as American because of its color--comes from American ships that are arriving in African ports at the rate of nearly one a week, according to Eric Whit, an agricultural officer with the U.S. Agency for International Development.
U.S. Aid Covers Half
The agency forecasts that Sudan could fall as much as 1.9 million tons short of meeting its own sorghum, millet and wheat needs this year. American aid, Whit says, will make up at least half that shortage.
As mothers sat patiently with their children waiting for the feeding to begin, trucks with loudspeakers careened through El Obeid, whipping up a fervor for Bush's arrival. Near the clinic, a thousand or more people practiced chants and applause for the vice president's welcoming ceremony.
When Bush did arrive, it was almost anticlimactic. In a brief speech, he praised the compassion of Sudanese local officials and President Jaafar Numeiri.
"The United States of America is proud to be able to help. We want to help you in your hour of need. We believe in Sudan," Bush said. "God bless all of you."
After half an hour, the vice president left, and hundreds of camp residents ran beside his caravan until it pulled away and out of sight.