The Two-Month Government Flight Ban
The very next day, February 4, the government exacerbated the dire situation by slapping a flight ban on all U.N. relief planes Afor the entire Bahr El Ghazal region@ on Asecurity grounds@69 for an undetermined length of time. This flight ban lasted from February 4 until March 31; it was relaxed on February 21 to permit flights to only six Bahr El Ghazal locations (two of them the garrison towns of Wau and Aweil).70
The OLS reacted immediately and publicly to the government=s February 4 flight ban:
This comes just as OLS emergency response teams on the ground confirm both the numbers and deteriorating condition of internally displaced populations.
The suspension of flight access to the area threatens to disrupt emergency response to the growing crisis, . . . while 102 OLS personnel who rely on air delivery for food and water supplies, are unreachable at present.
Emergency teams on the ground, distributing relief supplies sent on Monday 2 February to assist the populations displaced by fighting, report that the amounts delivered will last only for a few days. Without further supplies, the conditions of over 100,000 IDPs [internally displaced persons] will deteriorate rapidly.71
OLS also worried that its polio eradication program would have a negligible impact in southern Sudan if the ban continued, because it estimated that almost half the population of southern Sudan lived in Bahr El Ghazal.72
The U.N. Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs in New York warned:
The flight ban . . . has a serious impact, not only on the war-affected population, but also on hundreds of thousands of women and children living in Bahr El Ghazal, one of the most deprived areas in the south, which was already experiencing a severe food deficit before the current crisis.73
Bahr El Ghazal is about three hours flying time from the logistical hub of OLS (Southern Sector) relief operations on the Sudan border at Lokichokkio, Kenya. Bahr El Ghazal is far also from the long overland route stretching from northern Uganda, where Ugandan rebel land mines are numerous, into southern Sudan. Even in an emergency in 1998, it took weeks for trucks carrying tons of food to travel from Uganda to Bahr El Ghazal, because the dirt roads were not maintained and most bridges over rivers were destroyed for military purposes, usually by the SPLA. A convoy of 120 MT of sorghum reached Mapel in southern Bahr El Ghazal on February 25, 1998, after a 560 mile (900 kilometer) journey which took two weeks. This was enough food to feed 50,000 for six days, according to the U.N. It marked the first time the U.N. managed to send food so far north by road.74 In four days, one C-130 airplane can deliver the same amount of food (128 MT with two flights per day), but at a much greater cost.
The area punished by this government flight ban was much wider than the area affected by the fighting in Wau, Gogrial, and Aweil. Therefore there was no possibility of airdropping food to locations near the famine zone for the stronger to carry back to the weaker; the distances were too great for weakened porters.
The U.N. tried behind-the-scenes diplomacy, but the Sudan government was unyielding. It orally declared its intention to declare persona non grata the OLS (Southern Sector) coordinator, at the very least a time-consuming distraction from the food emergency. It stepped back from that position but remained obdurate on the flight ban.
On February 6, OLS submitted to the government an alternative flight plan which focused on the immediate relief requirements for an estimated 103,000 to 111,000 internally displaced persons within the total affected Bahr El Ghazal population of approximately 350,000. On February 13, the executive directors of UNICEF and WFP as well as Under Secretary-General Vieira de Mello communicated their concerns in letters addressed separately to officials at the highest levels of the Sudan government.75 The U.N.=s efforts to find a rapid solution to the crisis were complicated by the sudden accidental death of First Vice President Zubeir in a plane crash on February 12.
While the government of Sudan indicated in a public statement on February 10 that the ban would be lifted Ashortly,@ by February 18 there had been little tangible progress aside from government approval for OLS (Northern Sector) teams to conduct security and program needs assessment missions beginning February 20 in Wau and other government-controlled areasCand the famine had not yet reached Wau. On February 19, the secretary-general dispatched to Khartoum his special envoy for humanitarian affairs in Sudan, Ambassador Robert van Schaik, with a personal message to the Sudanese head of state regarding the flight ban.76
Under this pressure, the government relented slightly and permitted some flights into four Bahr El Ghazal rural relief sites, Adet (14,000 needy) and Ajiep, Pakor, and Akuem (59,000 in those three locations), starting on February 26.77 Deliveries to Wau and Aweil from OLS= Khartoum base were also approved.
As it turned out, delivering food to only four rural locations was a setback; these quickly became Aaid magnets@ which caused thousands of people to migrate away from their land and kin.78 The influx quickly overloaded local and OLS capacities in the four locations, further weakened those who made the journey on foot and without food, created tensions between the hosts and the displaced, and Aset a trend which continues to the present day of mobile groups moving from location to location in search of food.@79
With these counterproductive exceptions, the ban went on for almost two months. During that time, all food, including wild foods and fish which were affected by the drought as well, became scarcer and scarcer. One Wau resident stranded with his family in Mapel in April bitterly told a relief worker after hearing of massacres in Wau, "I would rather have stayed in Wau and been slaughtered by the Arabs than to bring my children to Mapel, where there is nothing to feed them.@80 This worker commented, AThere was nothing, nothing, nothing to eat in Mapel.@81
Other indications of scarcity was famine victims= Aturning into the ground@ or excavating ant hills and sifting through the dirt to find grains of wild rice, a process which takes hours and yields about one cup of edible food.82 Yet another indicator was the slaughter of animals for food much earlier in the year than usual. By April, the slaughter rate of cattle in Bahr El Ghazal had gone up 500 percent and the price of beef had gone up 300 percent, according to the relief group Oxfam.83 Slaughter of cattle for food is a last resort, especially at the beginning of the hunger gap period (April to October). Cattle are a principal form of savings, required to pay bridewealth and other traditional obligations. The cows are also an important traditional source of nutritionCmilkCduring the hunger gap season.
Little by little, journalists found their way to the famine areas Aillegally,@ that is, mostly without Sudan government visas on non-OLS chartered flights which flew into Sudan in defiance of the government ban. They began to report on a human tragedy that was, even in its early stages, enormously disturbing.
Her five younger children sat naked in the dust next to her, each thinner than the last, their eyes hollow, thin ribs visible, their arms like sticks, their bellies protruding in famine=s parody of fullness. They had been waiting [for a distribution of food] for two days.84
By the time the ban was lifted, WFP had only been able to cover 19 percent of the estimated food requirements of Bahr El Ghazal from February through mid-March.85
The ban was not imposed on government areas and, except for Western Upper Nile fighting between Riek Machar and Paulino Matiep, people in government areas were not exposed to the danger of famine. On April 13, while the agencies were struggling to counter the dire effects of the government=s two-month ban on relief to rebel-held areas, Sudan=s Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Hussein Al Obeid boasted that government-held areas in southern Sudan Ado not suffer any food shortage or famine.@86 That did not last long, however, as famine migrants, many too weak to prepare their own food, streamed into the garrison towns starting in May.87
69 Matthew Bigg, "Sudan government bans aid flights to battle region,@ Reuters, Nairobi, February 4, 1998; OLS (Southern Sector), Northern BEG Emergency Sitrep No. 2, Nairobi, February 6, 1998.
70 Chege Mbitiru, AU.N. Begins Sudan Food Airdrops,@ AP, Nairobi, February 26, 1998; See "Sudan government suspends aid flights to south,@ Reuters, Nairobi, October 1, 1998.
71 OLS (Southern Sector), Northern Bahr el Ghazal Emergency Sitrep No. 2, Nairobi, February 6, 1998.
73 OCHA, New York, February 6, 1998.
74 AUN Agency delivers food to Sudan from Uganda,@ Reuters, Nairobi, February 25, 1998.
75 OCHA, OCHA InterAction Meeting, February 27, 1998, Background Papers: Sudan.
77 Chege Mbitiru, AUN Begins Sudan Food Airdrops,@ AP, Nairobi, February 26, 1998.
78 Joint Task Force Report, p. 4.
80 Human Rights Watch interview, Lokichokkio, May 9, 1998.
82 OLS (Southern Sector), Northern Bahr El Ghazal Emergency Sitrep No. 7 for March 8-10, 1988 (Nairobi), March 16, 1998.
83 Catherine Bond, "Sudan famine has dire effect on Dinka's cattle economy," CNN (web posted), Mayath, Sudan, July 18, 1998.
84 James C. McKinley, Jr., AFamine Looming, Sudan Curbs Relief to Rebel-Held Areas,@ New York Times, Adet, Sudan, March 18, 1998.
85 OLS, Press Release, AFlight Suspension to Bahr El Ghazal lifted,@ Khartoum and Nairobi, April 2, 1998.
86 ARelief Supplies reaching Southern Sudan: official,@ AFP, Khartoum, April 13, 1998.
87 AGovernment plane bombs feeding center in southern Sudan,@ AFP, Nairobi, June 12, 1998.