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Famine relief in Kulbus, West Sudan

1985 July 4
by Paul Vallely

There were four sacks of flour, half a bag of sugar and bi bag of dried milk in the corner of the tent when Muhammad Mustapha pulled back the canvas flap.

It was all he had to feed 1,000 children.

‘It will last for three days of making porridge. Perhaps, God willing, some more will come before it runs out. If not, the children will die,’ he said with a dignified simplicity.

In normal times Kulbus has a population of 7,000. More than 20,000 starving peasants are camping in and around the town these days, driven from their villages by the vain hope of finding food in the town.

The feeding centre is run by Sudanese relief workers from the Islamic African Relief Agency but it is funded by the Kuwiati Government. Seven weeks ago, for reasons which are clear to no-one, the Kuwaitis pulled out. Now the supplementary foodstuffs they left behind are running out too. The story is similar in several Kuwaiti-established camps; one, at Nyala, has now had to be closed for lack of funds.

But the people of Kulbus were a little more fortunate. They do receive some food – around a kilo each week, which is less than a third of the minimum required to sustain human life.

It comes from a group called German Agro Action which has managed to bypass the blockage of food supplies which has turned drought into famine in the west of Sudan. The German and workers bring the grain from the west coast of Africa, from Cameroon through Chad. It is an expensive route, but the food does get through.

It is just enough, at the moment, to keep body and soul together for the people in Kulbus, though the ration is constantly decreasing as more peasants appear for a share. The Germans estimated they would be feeding 10,000 but the total to date is nearer 60,000 in their three centres.

Just as serious a problem is the water. There are three main wells in the town. Each, apart from the one reserved for the Sudanese Army, is around 80 feet deep and yet has little at the bottom. The women of the area stand patiently by the edge of the deep shafts, peering down at the turbid water which trickles slowly in from the sides to fill one leather bucket every 15 or 20 minutes.

The town’s school, at which children from the remote surrounding villages normally board, is closed for lack of food and water.

There is no seed to plant should the area’s seven-year drought break.

‘We are maintaining people in a dead place,’ says Norbut Burge an agronomist with the German group who sees no long-term future for this fierce and arid environment. ‘This town is on a life support machine. If the rains fail again we will have to switch it off. People will have to move or die.’

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