The Common Good
November-December 1998

A Preventable Famine

by Tony P. Hall | November-December 1998

The systematic cruelty behind Sudan's suffering.

Sudan has repeatedly made headlines in the past 10 years, as devastating famines took their deadly toll. But when Sudan returned to the media spotlight this summer, it was for a different reason, as U.S. cruise missiles leveled a factory in Khartoum. U.S. officials recommended the action in retaliation for this summer’s bombing of embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Sudanese officials deny the charges, as well as U.S. allegations that the factory was owned by the mastermind behind terrorism in neighboring Kenya and Tanzania. The factory only made medicines, they insist, and claim 80 percent of the country’s pharmaceutical supply was lost in the attack.

Famine victim and terrorism sponsor: It seems unlikely that one country could play such different roles. Sudan’s size--it is the biggest country in all of Africa--offers one explanation of how one country could contain both currents. It is the southern Sudanese, mostly black Africans, who are suffering starvation. Arabic Africans in the north, who make up Sudan’s government and its allies, are the ones accused of terrorism.

More conclusive than Sudan’s size, though, is the nature of its famine. Again and again, the pressure of war has made it impossible for southern Sudanese communities to withstand their harsh environment. This pressure includes the bombing of feeding centers and other humanitarian targets and a blockade of relief flights by government forces; slave raids by militia suspected of being allies of the government; and rebel soldiers’ diversion of food aid from the famine victims who depend upon them for protection.

When I visited Sudan’s famine-stricken region early this summer, I got a firsthand look at what it means to use food as a weapon. I saw the burned-out remains of huts and the skeletons of their owners. I met hundreds of the residents who had escaped the attack, living beyond the reach of horsemen in swamps, eating the charred roots of water lilies, and trying to survive the malarial mosquitoes. Soon after I left Sudan, one of the feeding centers I’d visited was bombed. A village where I saw history’s biggest humanitarian airlift in operation was attacked. And the small amount of food captured was turned into a funeral pyre for the people who were too weak to run from the raiders.

SUDAN EXEMPLIFIES the truism that just as charity begins at home, so too does terrorism--as terrible cruelty to a country’s own citizens. In devaluing human life, the perpetrators of Sudan’s civil war have demonstrated a bloodthirst so horrible that we should not be surprised that it spills beyond borders.

We have too often seen the people of southern Sudan through their attackers’ eyes--as members of a different ethnic group or religion. That smokescreen only diverts our attention and lets us ignore the horrific suffering of the southern Sudanese. We should view them as canaries in coal mines, whose suffering signals a need for urgent action by those of us who refuse to ignore or accept the atrocities.

To date, Sudan’s famines have claimed two million people--twice the number who died during Ethiopia’s Great Famine. A million more are expected to follow them to early graves before this crisis ends. The catastrophic scale of this famine is enough reason to care about the people who face starvation in the coming months.

As people of faith, we are called to speak out about oppression, injustice, and famine. This is a major theme in the scriptures, most eloquently expressed in Isaiah 1:17, which outlines God’s commandment to "Learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow."

Clearly, many people in Sudan are crying out for help. They are a focus for those who are determined to end its cycle of famines. This famine is the result of a systematic cruelty that compels us all to respond before the headlines again scream for our attention.

TONY P. HALL is a U.S. representative from Ohio. Hall, a nominee for the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on hunger issues, is founder and chair of the Congressional Hunger Center.

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