A hum of life where once was despair

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The Independent Online
IT IS so different now. The Bararud feeding centre in the heart of Bahr el Gazal hums with conversation, and the high protein mix for children is doled out in orange mugs with ordered efficiency. There has been time to lay concrete flooring with numbered spaces for the mothers. The children are given medical checks, vitamins and measles jabs.

Such places used to be ghastly. Desperate. They hummed then, but with the feeble panic of the starving. Grass fences kept out a press of people who saw the white tents as their only hope of survival. Inside, some died in the food queues. Such was the demand on an inadequate aid operation that the excellent Medecins sans Frontieres had to raise the standard of what qualified as an extremely malnourished child. There were too many. There was not enough for all. And those limbs. Those awful, thin legs that had carried children for hours through the countryside to where the aircraft delivered. One 10-year-old heaved a baby on his jutting hip and explained that their mother had died on the way.

These are a strong and resourceful people who are capable of surviving the greatest hardships. But war and long droughts cut their options. "Why have you moved? Why is your baby so thin? Is it not better at home?" The replies came with a dignity that mocked the questioner. "There is no food." In the end, for many people, it was that simple.

As the famine gripped, aid workers likened their task to bailing out a sinking ship. Their day would start with the count of the dead in the centres. No one was immune from the tangible, panicky desperation. One Belgian nurse on her first assignment cried when she managed to revive a dying old man by forcing the high protein porridge down his rattling throat. She sobbed in relief, but the man died two days later.

After a visit to a feeding centre in Ajiep, I watched as a low-flying Hercules aircraft tipped out its load of food. I started to cry. At that moment it seemed that a beautiful swoop in the sky was bringing international will to a place where there was only despair.

There had been a lot wrong with the aid operation for southern Sudan. This time last year government donors did not want to know, and the United Nations operation was cutting back. The warnings that 1998 was going to see severe food shortages were ignored. But by this summer there was a single, overriding tactic. Get the food in. And it came. Eighteen aircraft are now flying regular missions to save lives in southern Sudan. The cost to the UN and to other aid groups is put at about pounds 1m a day.

Waiting for his powdered vitamin A at Bararud, a two-year-old called Adeng Abek clutched at his mother. He had on a necklace which is worn to prevent the spirits of the dead occupying his body. No one can give reliable figures for how many died in this, the latest of Sudan's many tragedies. Perhaps it is time to talk of lives saved.

I left the feeding centre in Bahr el Gazal with the children playing football outside, and stopped off in another province where fields have been flooded since July. The floods have displaced 100,000 people. Even that will not stop the war.

Martin Dawes is the BBC's East Africa correspondent.