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In Sudan, Death and Denial

Officials Accused of Concealing Crisis as Thousands Starve

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 27, 2004; Page A01

MORNAY, Sudan -- There are tents here that no parent wants to visit. They are called feeding centers, shady rectangular units where children fight death. Sitting on a mat and holding his son's frail hand, Mohammed Ishaq and his wife, Aisha, have been here five days, nursing 9-month-old Zohar on drops of water from a large pink cup, praying that somehow he will survive.

Zohar spits up the water. His cough is rough, and his thin skin clings to his ribs. His withered left arm is connected to an IV. He is suffering from malaria, complicated by malnutrition. Near him, other parents rock, nurse and pray for their babies, who are passed out or moaning, their eyes rolled back as they vomit emergency rations of corn and oil.

Soldiers guard refugees at a camp outside El Fashir, where a rebellion against the government last year led to the aerial bombardment of villages. (Marcus Gyger -- AP)

Six hundred miles to the east in the capital, Khartoum, Mustafa Osman Ismail, the foreign minister of Sudan, stretched back in his plump leather chair in an air-conditioned office overlooking the Nile.

"In Darfur, there is no hunger. There is no malnutrition. There is no epidemic disease," he said in an interview. Yes, he conceded, there is "a humanitarian situation." But the hunger, he said, was "imagined" by the media.

Both hunger and denial are weapons in Sudan, according to U.N. officials and international aid workers. After accusing the government of imposing a policy of forced starvation on the people of Darfur, they now say that official attempts to conceal the crisis are endangering efforts to prevent famine among an estimated 1.2 million people.

Mornay is the largest refugee camp in the region. It is a labyrinth of suffering, where one child in five is acutely malnourished, aid workers say, where for six months 75,000 people have lived on less than half the food they need to survive, where six people die every day, mainly children and the elderly, from hunger and disease.

In the town of Mornay, near the camp, there is a market with no food. There is a tiny mosque where no one is praying, because 3,000 people are crammed into its dank and fetid spaces. There is arable land outside the camp, but crops cannot be gathered because militiamen on horseback, clad in government uniforms, roam the scrubby landscape. Assault rifles are balanced on their laps, and whips hang from their belt loops. Women are trapped inside the camp, unable to forage for firewood or food.

There are 129 such camps across Darfur, 31 of which are inaccessible because they are in areas held by the government or the rebels in the region, which stretches along the border of Chad. More than a million people live in the camps, many of which lack water, supplies and sanitation, and operate without any feeding centers.

The people in the camps were driven from their villages and farms by pro-government Arab militiamen, a ragtag collection of traditional tribal fighters and criminals known in Arabic as Janjaweed, which means "men who ride horses and carry G3 guns." The Janjaweed fighters have terrorized and killed, witnesses say, and are also accused of rapes and beatings.

Tensions in Darfur have simmered since the 1970s, when drought and competition over scarce resources sparked clashes between largely nomadic cattle and camel herders, who view themselves as Arabs, and the more sedentary farmers, who see their ancestry as African. Both groups are Muslim.

The tensions flared in February 2003, when groups of students and political activists from three of Darfur's African tribes started a rebellion against the government, complaining that the Arab ruling elite had failed to develop the area.

The Darfur groups thought it was time to press their case when a peace deal finally began to take hold in an unrelated conflict between the Islamic government in the north and rebels based in southern part of the country, a region that is largely animist and Christian, after 21 years of war and more than 2 million deaths.

The first major victory of the Darfur groups was the capture of the military town of El Fashir in a battle last year. They killed 75 government soldiers, stole weapons and destroyed four gunships and two Antonov aircrafts, government officials said. In response, the government began to arm local militias to boost the army and also launched an aerial bombardment of villages, witnesses say.

Over the past 16 months, more than 10,000 people have been killed and thousands driven from their homes by the Arab militiamen. Human rights and aid groups accuse the government of carrying out an ethnic cleansing campaign, targeting three tribes: the Fur, Massaleit and Zaghawa.

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