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Sudan: The Perils of Aid

Edited from essay by John Ryle

In the course of Sudan's long civil war it has become easy to create famine, easy both for the government and for factions in the south of the country once in rebellion against the government, but now allied with it against the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the surviving core of the southern rebel movement. All that is necessary is to loot and pillage villages in a single area--stealing livestock and burning crops--and do the same thing a year later. And the year after that. In drought-prone areas the weather will do the rest. When the rain fails there is nothing to fall back on. Sooner or later the population will be forced to move in search of food.

For displaced people, movement is made more difficult by the fighting. Markets along the way are empty; there is no local food surplus. Access to emergency relief is limited by Sudan government restrictions on the operation of UN aircraft. Distances are huge. By the time a displaced person manages to walk to a relief centre, she is well on the way to becoming one of the stick people who have come once more to haunt our TV screens.

So it is an easy thing to do, to create a famine. And easy too, it seems, once you have done that, to change sides as a southern warlord named Kerubino Kuanyin Bol has done. And now it is he, among
other rebel commanders, controlling the airstrips where relief planes land, when the Khartoum government permits flights.

Until four months ago, Major-General Kerubino was on the government side. As the leader of a government-sponsored militia fighting the SPLA, he spent four years cutting a swathe through the north of Bahr-al-Ghazal, his own home province. Then, last January, in a sudden switch of allegiance, Kerubino changed sides and rejoined the SPLA. This provoked a new movement of civilians fleeing government retribution. Today it is under his protection--and that of the SPLA--that international aid
agencies are, belatedly, unloading thousands of tons of food grain and cooking oil in the attempt to assist the inhabitants of the area before the rains begin.

Something like this has happened repeatedly in different parts of southern Sudan over the past decade. The first time, in the late 1980s, when northern Arab militias raided Bahr-al-Ghazal, no aid agency was present. There was no international outcry. Tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of
thousands, died. In 1989 the UN established an agreement with the government and the SPLA to give aid organisations access to the war zone. The capacity of these organisations to foresee and pre-empt such food crises is, however, limited, despite a relief operation that has become, in its eight years of existence, the most costly in history. And their presence does nothing to bring an end to the conflict that causes these crises. On the contrary, the material goods they bring in are one more resource to fight over.

For the leaders of the SPLA, Kerubino's return has come at an opportune moment, when their offensive against the government is faltering. It suits them that the attention of the international community should be concentrated on Bahr-al-Ghazal, now that they control most of the province. It suits them to forget what they said about Kerubino when they were enemies. But the international community should not forget.

In Sudan, as elsewhere, to gain access to the needy, aid agencies are forced to negotiate with men of violence--both military dictators and the rebels fighting them. Aid agencies know that they are provisioning fighters as well as civilians, but there is no other way. In these low-intensity wars soldiers are not the ones who suffer. It is civilians under their control, the weak and powerless--women, children, and old people--who end up as sacks of bones.

Aid prolongs war, even as it saves lives. And worse. While food is flown in under UN agencies, some UN member countries are providing weapons and other military assistance to the warring parties in Sudan. China, Iraq, Iran, and Malaysia have provided weaponry and training to the Khartoum
government. Eritrea and Uganda--with US backing--currently give military support to the SPLA. South Africa has sold weapons to both sides. The country is infested with small arms. But no side has sufficient military superiority to win the war. It is as though, having put a fence round Sudan, the international community throws scraps over the fence for those inside to fight with, and to fight over. For the Sudanese this is the worst of all worlds.

The full article is published in 'The New York Review of Books', June 11th. http://www.nybooks.com/

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John Ryle (1998). Sudan: The Perils of Aid. Field Exchange 4, June 1998. p19. www.ennonline.net/fex/4/sudan

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