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In Sudan, Masses Die as Rebels, Government Use Food as a Weapon

February 05, 1989|Francis M. Deng | Francis M. Deng, formerly Sudanese ambassador to the United States, is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution

WASHINGTON — No one whose conscience is alive can be insensitive to the current news of the tragic war raging in the Sudan between the government and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement. Although labels tend to oversimplify a complex configuration, the war is essentially a continuation and an intensification of a chronic conflict that has intermittently raged for more than three decades between the dominant Arab Muslim north and the African Christian and so-called animist south.

Particularly shocking from a moral standpoint is the way food has been used as a weapon by both sides. The rebels prevent relief from reaching southern towns under government control, on the grounds that relief supplies would be used for the army, may provide a cover for weapons and would attract people to the towns. The government prevents food from reaching the areas held by the rebels for reasons of sovereignty and pride and also to deplete what they regard as the popular base of support for the guerrilla movement.

Whatever the justification of the respective positions of the parties, their policies and actions have left the starving people of the south in a vacuum of moral leadership, unprotected and uncared for. For Sudanese, the reaction must be one of embarrassment and shame, if not outright indignation and outrage, at the plight of masses of men, women and children silently dying.

For me the tragedy is also personal. I come from Abyei, the Ngok Dinka area which--though geographically, racially and culturally part of the southern complex--has for historical reasons been administered as part of Kordofan in the north. It is an area which, under the leadership of my family, dating back to the pre-colonial period, has played a bridging role between the Arab tribes to the north and the Dinka tribes to the south. My father, the late Chief Deng Majok, whose exceptional contribution has been nationally acknowledged, used to describe himself as the needle and thread that bound the two parts of the country together. Since my father's death in 1969, I have invested a great deal of effort in continuing this challenging family tradition. Today, Abyei has been spotlighted in the international news media as a symbol of the tragedy and the inhumanity that has so sharply divided our country.

As the war intensified, most of the indigenous population of Abyei fled to the north in search of security. Other Dinkas from further south moved into the area, hoping for relief. What they found instead was the deadly weapon of deliberate starvation. According to U.N. sources, deaths in Abyei averaged 150 a day last June. By November, 8,000 had starved to death. Virtually no children under 2 years old were left alive. What agony it would cause my father to witness what has become of the peaceful haven he had so skillfully constructed.

Much of the destruction in rural areas does not come directly from the warring factions, but from the southern and northern tribal militias, the so-called "friendly forces" that are recruited, trained, armed and supported to help fight the war against the rebels. And since the Dinka are recognized as the main source of recruitment and support for the rebel movement--partly because they are the majority in the south and presumably because John Garang, the leader of the movement, is a Dinka--the tribal militias have been unleashed against them.

There have been documented accounts of women and children being captured and taken away in bondage to labor for their captors in the north or be exchanged or ransomed for cash. Destitute parents have been known to give their children away for little or no reward in the desperate hope that the children will at least survive and lead a better life.

The extreme factionalization of national identity and the degree to which it has affected moral standards can explain the suffering inflicted upon innocent civilians by the withholding of food. In 1988 alone, as many as 260,000 people may have fallen victim to this deadly unconventional weapon.

But there is more to the human cost of war than starvation. The displacement is so intense that in some areas communities have been decimated, shattered and obliterated as cohesive social entities. Close to half a million southern Sudanese refugees, most of them Dinka, are reported to have fled into neighboring Ethiopia. An estimated 2 million have moved to the north, where they live under appalling social conditions and physical insecurity. In March, 1987, allegedly in retaliation for attacks by the rebels against Arab militias, more than 1,000 Dinkas were massacred by Arabs in the town of El Daien, as authorities watched approvingly or helplessly. About a million southerners have been turned into squatters, rimming the outskirts of Khartoum, living under conditions of severe deprivation and degradation. Although the Dinka number several million in population, some people are beginning to wonder about their long-term survival as a people.

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