ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The worst cases lay in four long huts: hundreds of exhausted and emaciated boys who had walked two, three or four months across southern Sudan, eating only leaves and roots along the way. They were motionless, many of them naked, their long, thin legs stretched out on mats made of elephant grass. Each day, a few died.
Nearby, under a small tent, were 50 youngsters who had nearly starved to death, recovered and now showed signs of mental disorders.
"That's the most disheartening thing, to see 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds who have gone mad because they can no longer deal with this mentally," said a relief official who visited the refugee camp in Ethiopia last month and described the scene in an interview.
So far this year, more than 40,000 young refugees fleeing civil war in southern Sudan have flooded across the border into the Gambela region of southwestern Ethiopia. The boys, primarily from the Dinka tribe of cattle herders, have been arriving at the rate of about 11,000 a month, swelling the population of four refugee camps to 280,000, about twice capacity.
"They began coming all of a sudden in November. And they told us more were coming," said Alain Peters, director of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees in Ethiopia. "Only the fittest were making it, and when they reached the camps many were ready to die."
In March, young refugees suffering from malnutrition and intestinal ailments were dying at the rate of six a day there. A measles epidemic in one camp killed more than 100 in December. But more food and medicine are now being delivered to the camps, and for the first time the death toll has begun to fall, to about one person a day.
Most of the refugees say they began their journey out of Sudan when militiamen invaded their villages and killed their fathers. The frightened young boys did not wait to see what would happen to their mothers and sisters. They escaped and started walking.
Relief workers say those roaming militia are armed and supported by the predominantly Arab and Muslim government in northern Sudan, which has been waging war for five years against the black southerners, who are Christian or animist, of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army. The rebels, led by John Garang, a U.S.-educated former army colonel, are seeking autonomy and economic reforms.
Caught in Crossfire
About 100,000 civilians caught in the crossfire have left the southern province of Bahr el Ghazal during the last three months, 40,000 of them heading east to Ethiopia and 60,000 north to the capital, Khartoum, relief officials estimate.
But a woman and six children from the south recently starved to death after arriving at the train station in Khartoum, prompting the Sudan Times newspaper to criticize the "spectacular indifference" of the government to the plight of refugees from the south.
About 2 million people are said to have fled war and drought in southern Sudan in recent years. The invading militias kill the adult men, steal their cattle and have in some cases enslaved women, refugees have told relief officials.
The women and elderly men who escape tend to travel north because the route is believed to be less arduous. The young boys, traveling without clothing or supplies, walk east toward the mixed acacia and tall grass of Ethiopia's lowlands, about 600 miles west of Addis Ababa.
Worse Than in Ethiopia
In recent interviews here, relief officials and Western diplomats who visited the camps in April described the scene as worse than anything seen in Ethiopia during the famine of 1984-85.
The sight of starving young boys at the medical unit in Fugnido, where 27,000 refugees live, "was more than most of us could handle without having a severe emotional reaction," one of the foreign visitors said.
The camps were overflowing and essential medical supplies, such as oral rehydration salts for treating diarrhea, were unavailable. In Itang, the largest camp, near Gambela in Ilubabor province, a community of 186,000 had not had milk for eight months.
The Ethiopian Red Cross Society, a local agency closely affiliated with the Ethiopian government, and the government's Relief and Rehabilitation Commission had been working in Itang since they opened to refugees several years ago. But the sudden influx of refugees took them by surprise.
Unprepared for Influx
A U.N. medical team that visited in March described "an extreme state of lack of preparedness."
"No one was prepared for this many people," acknowledged Peters, of the U.N. refugee agency. The feeding program was inadequate, and obtaining emergency food had been hard because the roads are in poor shape and the nearest port is more than 1,000 miles away. The refugees got their drinking water from a nearby river.
Many of the refugees were too young to care for themselves. In Fugnido, for example, more than half the refugees were under 15. Women accounted for only 3% of the population.