THIYET COULD be a flourishing little market town. With crowds of traders and bustling stalls, you can imagine how it might one day be transformed. But fortune rarely smiles in southern Sudan these days. Thiyet has a market, but there is little flourishing about it. Tea, some outdated penicillin and a handful of onions are among the few items on sale. Life here is desolate.

Thiyet finds itself in a hopeless spiral of decline, in this zone of almost-war. A clutch of makeshift graves in a patch of waste ground on the edge of the town - previously, the site of several houses - serve as a reminder of how death can come out of the sky at any time. Seventeen people died in a single day last year when the government's Antonov aircraft bombed the town.

The raid was to punish the southern rebel force, the Sudan People's Liberation Army, (SPLA). But the government cares little about who it kills. The war is between the Arab north and the black Christian south. Yet those who died in this raid included an Arab family, whose simple grave bears inscriptions from the Koran.

Suffering always comes in grim multiples. Thiyet is in the province of Bahr el Ghazal, the area worst-hit by last year's famine - a famine that was initially declared to be a mere matter of "food shortages". Semantics can be deadly: around 50,000 people are now estimated to have died because of those "shortages". The number of deaths was especially high because of the delayed international response.

The war was a catalyst for the famine. Attacks by forces sympathetic to the government meant that thousands were displaced. Others were prevented by the war from moving to areas where they might have found food. The government, which spends $1m (pounds 614,000) a day on the war, imposed tough conditions which made it difficult or impossible to supply food to the worst-affected areas.

Thiyet was forced to cope with a huge influx of starving refugees, at a time when it barely had enough to feed itself. Some survived but many more did not: there are more makeshift graves at the edge of the town. "People did not have the strength to bury them properly," said Yol Mayarbit, a local administrator. A child's skull lies dull-white and forgotten among the weeds.

The 15-year war has been locked into a brutal stalemate. The SPLA holds much of the south, while the government remains holed up in a few key towns. Just to the west of Thiyet is the garrison town of Wau, held by government forces; SPLA forces hold the territory all around. As one Sudanese man from Wau pointed out: "If you go from the government to the SPLA side, the SPLA says you're a spy. If you go from the SPLA side into the town, the government says you're a spy."

A Human Rights Watch report on Sudan warned this week of the clear connection between hunger and war: "If the ceasefire is not extended, the disaster of last year will be repeated," it read. "The tribal militias who looted and burned and killed and captured so many civilians last year are not obeying the ceasefire now. They are armed and backed by the government - and it must restrain them."

This is a war that the rest of the world has virtually ignored. There has been little enthusiasm in Washington or London for getting to grips with a conflict which has resulted in the deaths of almost two million.

In Thiyet, this hear-no-evil, see-no-evil approach provokes anger. Arap Kolyoc, a local farmer, is furious at what she regards as international betrayal. Sitting in the shade of a mango tree near the marketplace, she was almost silent as other villagers talked about life in the town. Suddenly, she burst into life. "You foreigners talk about peace. But where were you before? If you had done more, you could have brought this war to an end a long time ago. You watch the Antonovs bombing innocent people - and you sit there passively."

Arguably, things may be about to change. Khartoum has long been eager to divide and rule its enemies, especially the two main southern tribes, the Nuer and Dinka. Riek Machar, a Nuer, split from his Dinka comrades in the SPLA and linked hands with the north. Now that seven-year alliance with the government is looking shaky, which makes the Islamic regime in Khartoum nervous. A remarkable grassroots peace deal agreed this month between the Nuer and the Dinka means pressure may increase on the north to offer more possibilities of compromise.

The SPLA is not keen on a softly-softly approach. In Thiyet, a curt notice pinned to a tree demands attendance at a forthcoming meeting: "These are rules, and must be obeyed accordingly." The rebels pay lip service to the creation of civil structures but they and their leader, John Garang, show little sign of making the commitment real. Partly, the problem is money. But education and health schemes come low on the SPLA's list of priorities. Only one in 10 people in the SPLA-controlled Bahr el Ghazal province have access to health services and education is almost non- existent, so prospects for the future are doubly bleak.

The Sudanese President, Omar al-Bashir, suggested recently that the south could secede if it wanted to. Most southern Sudanese dream of that, but do not trust the President's words. "Bashir is a crazy man," said Yol Mayarbit. None the less, he hopes that things might change.

"The war could go on indefinitely. But if the international community puts its hands together - the war will end."

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