Nakong, age 6 but certainly weighing no more than a healthy 2-year old, stands in a green cornfield here. She is the emaciated, barely living symbol of the horrors of a drought that is killing hundreds of people daily in the remote, northeastern corner of Uganda known as Karamoja.
Dressed only in a loincloth of tiny wire mesh hung from a stand of cloth, Nakong has been starving for so long that every rib is visible. Her stomach is distended, and there are only folds of skin where her buttocks should be. She cannot close her mouth for lack of moisture, and there are telltale signs of the beginnings of a form of oral cancer peculiar to the starving.
She is just one of hundreds of victims, said Rev. Bruno Tinazzi of the nearby Catholic mission. His relief supplies are so low that he can only provide a bowl of cornmeal a week to each of the more than 1,000 destitute people who gather at the mission pleading for food.
Nakong probably needed intravenous rehydration, but the mission clinic has no drugs and no i.v. equipment.
As the priest spoke, 100 yards away militia trainees "armed" with wooden rifles marched to the orders of their drill instructor. In the background tiny, starving children fought over kernels of corn spilled from a bag distributed earlier.
The militia represent the hopeless effort by the local people to defend themselves against another scourge of the region -- the Karamoja raiders. traditional local warriors who for centuries have been stealing cattle. The blood and milk of the cattle provide the only source of protein in the region -- normally the animals are not killed for their meat.
In the aftermath of the overthrow of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin last year, the raids have expanded into a major international cattle-rustling business straight out of the American Wild West.
Thousands of cattle, the basis of Karamojong society, have been stolen from the region as remnants of Amin's army and outlaws from as far away as Somalia, southern Ethopia, and Sudan and western Kenya have joined in the raids, using the arsenal of stolen weapons found throughout Uganda. Unlike any other pastoral area in Africa, there are hardly any cattle to be seen as a result.
Veteran relief officials acknowledge that there have been worse droughts. But they say they have never dealt with a famine situation where there are so many additional problems and where such a high percentage of a small population is threatened with extinction.
The irony is that the coming of the monsoon rains, though six weeks late, has ended the drought and the countryside is a lush green. The famine will continue, however, and the daily death toll will escalate at least until the harvest begins coming in late next month.
Droughts in such inaccessible areas as Karamoja do not lend themselves to statistical precision, but there is little question that hundreds of the 350,000 population of the province are dying daily. Estimates run as high as 500 a day, mostly children.
Melissa Wells, head of the United Nations program in Uganda and the main official seeking to coordinate international aid, estimates that 160,000 of the Karamojong are near starvation.
Wells, who had been in heated communication with the U.N. headquarters over the developing tragedy here, is bitterly critical, along with other relief workers, of the level of international air, the cooperation of neighboring governments and of the inefficiency of the unstable central government in Kampala.
Missionaries in the region say most of the victims die in the bush without ever reaching help.
According to Karamojong tradition, only the chief and his first wife are buried. Others bodies are simply dragged off into the unfrequented wilderness areas and left for the vultures and hyenas to consume.
"There are so many bodies, the hyenas are no longer even hungry. They just leave the bodies," said a nun at the Kaabong Mission, about 20 miles west of the Kenya Border.
Asked how many had died at Kaabong, Sister Rosetta Fresa replied, "Who can count? Yesterday nine died, today five."
Everywhere the story is the same. And the worst is yet to come.
The origins of the famine go back to the war when Amin's army and the liberation forces created havoc in the area. Little planting could be done.
Then came the drought: The "small rains" late last year failed and the monsoons, due in March, came late.
The crop will be small because the people ate much of their seen grain for lack of other food. Tomorrow is a luxury when you are starving today.
The Karamojong cannot look for help to the rest of Uganda where crops have been better. Most Ugandas regard them with fear and loathing because of their fierce warrior tradition.
A Health Ministry official put the matter simply. "The Karamojong are savages. If they didn't starve to death they'd just kill each other. Let them die."
The United Nations has taken over distribution of relief supplies in Karamoja, operating mainly through the missions, since the Ugandan government which has had four changes at the top in 13 months, has virtually ceased to operate.
Food shortages in neighboring Kenya and elsewhere in east Africa, which has also been hit by drought, are also hampering relief efforts.
The United Nations Development Program worked out a swap with Kenya in which 8,000 tons of Canadian wheat grain given to the World Food Program was to go to Kenya, which, in turn, was to supply a similar amount of corn to Uganda.
The agreement was critical to the lives of many Karamojong since Kenya provides the only convenient surface access to landlocked Uganda. Kenya received the wheat late last year but reneged on providing the corn since it had no supplies itself in January when delivery was to begin.
Kenyan officials refused to talk about the transaction, but Wells, a former American ambassador who is the UNDP resident representative in Kampala, makes it clear she believes the Kenyan action is responsible for many deaths.
During a four-day trip through Karamoja last week, many of her remarks to the starving contained the phrase, "If only the Kenyans had provided" the corn.
Wells' target was to provide 1,500 tons of corn a month to the area as the key element in a subsistence diet of 1,700 calories daily (about half the american average) to the neediest cases. The Kenyan corn would have almost sufficed for the first half of the year, the crucial period before the new harvest comes in and supplies are available from overseas.
Instead only 600 tons were distributed from January through April and about 1,000 tons last month.
Although the harvest will be small, the area should be over the hump for a while. The next two months, Wells said, are crucial. It is already assumed that thousands of Karamojong will die: the U.N. effort is intended to prevent the number from escalating even further.
Ironically, there is ample corn available in Ethiopia, which has agreed to a swap for future wheat and has even made a jet cargo plane available at cost to fly the corn from Addis Ababa to Entabbe.
The stumbling block is money. Each flight of 35 tons costs almost $23,000, almost three times the value of the corn.
Last month Wells managed to get eight flights financed, six by the United States and two by Oxfam, a private relief organization.
Firing off a cable to the United Nations asking if the world organization was "just supposed to let these people die," she received funds for eight more flights by the U.N.'s World Food Program, plus two from the British Red Cross.
That amounts to a quarter of a million dollars' worth of air cargo in June and provides slightly less than a quarter of the monthly minimum needs.
That only gets the corn to Entabbe Airport, three days' drive away from the remote areas of Karamoja. Cargo planes like the versatile C130 or helicopters could do wonders, but none is available.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has assembled a fleet of 16 trucks to move produce into the area. "That figure is rather theoretical," said John Humpries, head of the transport operation. "at any one time a third are off the road. One is at the bottom of a river right now."
One relief worker described the litany of horrors they faced: "We don't have food, we don't have trucks, we don't have fuel and we don't have people for distribution."
Meanwhile, as the frantic relief effort moves ahead, hundreds of Karamajong continue to die daily.
Perhaps the most poignant scene during a harrowing four-day, 750-mile tour off Karamoja occured at Kaabong Mission. About 80 tearful children, mostly between 5 and 10, walked in solemn procession around the cemetery at sunset, chanting the "Hail Mary" in Karamojong.
The dead are buried three deep. Rocks are piled on top of the fresh earth to keep animals away.
That day there were 11 freshly dug graves, two partially filled, awaiting the next victims of the famine. There is no question that they will soon be filled as the crying children chant their nightly novena for their dead friends.