In the course of Sudan’s long civil war it has become easy to create famine, easy both for the government and for factions in the south of the country once in rebellion against the government, but now allied with it against the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the surviving core of the southern rebel movement. All that is necessary is to loot and pillage villages in a single area—stealing livestock and burning crops—and do the same thing a year later. And the year after that. In drought-prone areas the weather will do the rest. When the rain fails there is nothing to fall back on. Sooner or later the population will be forced to move in search of food.
For displaced people, movement is made more difficult by the fighting. Markets along the way are empty; there is no local food surplus. Access to emergency relief is limited by Sudan government restrictions on the operation of UN aircraft. Distances are huge. By the time a displaced person manages to walk to a relief center, she is well on the way to becoming one of the stick people who have come once more to haunt our TV screens.
So it is an easy thing to do, to create a famine. And easy too, it seems, once you have done that, to change sides and demand that international agencies come to the aid of the people you have dispossessed. This is what a southern warlord named Kerubino Kuanyin Bol has done. If there is anyone who bears immediate responsibility for these stick people—for the mute children with dying eyes who steal into our dreams like revenants from earlier famines in Ethiopia, Somalia, or Northern Sudan—if any individual is responsible for them this time, it is Kerubino. And now it is he, among other rebel commanders, controlling the airstrips where relief planes land, when the Khartoum government permits flights.
Until four months ago, Major-General Kerubino was on the government side. As the leader of a government-sponsored militia fighting the SPLA, he spent four years cutting a swathe through the north of Bahr-al-Ghazal, his own home province. Two years ago, in a maneuver that is becoming depressingly familiar in the world’s disaster zones, he detained three officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross, extracting a ransom of fuel and vehicles for their safe return. (The deal, brokered by Bill Richardson, currently US ambassador to the UN, was greeted with alarm by aid workers in Sudan as setting a new and dangerous precedent in the entwined economy of war and relief aid.) Then, last January, in a sudden switch of allegiance, Kerubino changed sides and rejoined the SPLA. This provoked a new movement of civilians fleeing government retribution. Today it is under his protection—and that of the SPLA—that international aid agencies are, belatedly, unloading thousands of tons of food grain and cooking oil in the attempt to assist the inhabitants of the area before …