Three things come from the sky for the people of war-torn southern Sudan: rain, bombs and -- decreasingly -- food. While the rain has not come for a year, the bombs come almost weekly in some places. And now, tragically, the erratic food line is being diminished by Western governments understandably angered by the Sudanese government's alliance with Suddam Hussein and reported diversion of Western food to Iraq.
Since 1988, as many as a half-million new graves have been dug very quietly in Sudan. Replacing Cambodia in the 1970s and Ethiopia in the 1980s, Sudan now clearly hosts the world's most lethal killing fields.
This did not have to happen, and it doesn't have to continue. In order to avoid massive loss of human life, Western governments will have to employ flexible, more creative approaches than they have so far -- approaches that save the lives of Sudanese civilians despite the obstacles the Sudanese government consistently interposes.
Successive Sudanese governments, until recently, have been important geostrategic allies for the United States. However, the current Islamic fundamentalist military regime in its year and a half in power has set new standards for aberrant action. It has regularly bombed civilian targets in its war against the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army; detained more political prisoners than any other country in Africa during the past year; banned all political parties, newspapers, unions and professional associations; cut off food to civilians in many areas; robbed women of most of their rights; and demonstrated no interest in ending Sudan's seven-year civil war.
Nevertheless, the U.S. State Department until recently had cozied up to Khartoum, just as it did with Iraq before its invasion of Kuwait, despite both countries' extraordinary human rights violations against their own people. The department continued to assist the Sudan government through multilateral institutions and to defend it from a wide range of congressional critics.
But now that Sudan is supporting Saddam Hussein in his confrontation with the world, the State Department, exhibiting no shame for its past position, has done an about-face and has become harshly critical of the Khartoum regime. One State Department official called it the Khmer Rouge of Africa.
Better late than never. But now, even though drought layered upon civil war has placed up to 11 million people at risk of starvation in Sudan, some Western governments are not responding appropriately to the humanitarian crisis. Some are actually reducing humanitarian aid. It is as if they were seeking to use food aid as a weapon against the Sudanese government, when in fact no one in power in Khartoum will be hurt by this strategy, while the little people go hungry. This response is politically inadequate and humanly indefensible. Other options must be pursued -- for humanitarian reasons, not the least of which is that the Sudanese government itself sees many of those civilians at risk as its enemies. In fact, on Monday Sudan's chief government economist indicated that Sudan, which denies the impending famine's existence, "would refuse relief even if there was a famine."
The economic pressure caused by the U.S.-orchestrated worldwide embargo against Iraq is the linchpin of the international strategy against Saddam Hussein, as it has been against apartheid in South Africa. These same measures should now be implemented against the government of Sudan.
The United States and other Western governments that have continued to support the Sudanese government through the World Bank, U.N. development assistance, the African Development Bank and a variety of trade agreements should just say No! Working through the U.N. Security Council, a complete trade and nonhumanitarian-aid embargo should be imposed to change the brutal behavior of dictator Omer Hassan el Bashir against the Sudanese people and to re-create a comprehensive, humanitarianly neutral relief and rehabilitation operation.
But in the meantime what about the people, whose rapidly dwindling food stocks continue to be politically manipulated? Practical steps -- even if limited -- need to be taken now. Since 1987, there have existed alternative routes for food, medicine and other rehabilitation supplies originating in Kenya and Uganda. The United Nations helped expand these routes through its Operation Lifeline Sudan.
Western governments and the United Nations have an obligation now to massively expand the carrying capacity of these routes and to extend them farther into Sudan. New routes from other contiguous countries should be opened. The relief network -- consisting of the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association, the relief arm of the Sudanese rebels; the New Sudan Council of Churches; and the many nongovernmental organizations operating throughout rebel territory in the south -- needs to be strengthened.
For years, similar operations have existed in embattled Eritrea and Tigre next door to Sudan without the Ethiopian government's consent. These operations, supported by the United States and others, have saved thousands of lives and helped thousands of families to eventually become self-sufficient.
It takes time and long-term commitment on the part of donors, which must override short-term political considerations. Just as with these cross-border operations into Ethiopia, the SRRA, NSCC and the various nongovernmental organizations have the capacity to expand the relief and rehabilitation assistance they currently receive from the West, enabling food and supplies to go directly to the people in rebel-held areas.
But because there are millions of people at risk of starvation in government-held areas as well, Western governments should continue to negotiate with the Sudanese government for windows of opportunity to get food directly to affected communities and to reestablish some kind of basic agreement for the equitable delivery of food to civilians in both the government and rebel-held areas. Even the Bashir government may come to realize an interest in allowing food to go to areas that it controls, lest it face a political backlash from a starving populace that goes hungry while civilians in the rebel-held sector are being fed.
The political turmoil in Sudan seems without end. The top priorities of U.S. foreign policy should be to isolate the current regime, to get food to all people where they are and to support local initiatives for self-reliance to protect people from the worst ravages of this merciless and intractable civil war.
Roger Winter is director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees. John Prendergast is a research associate of the Center of Concern.