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Riding the Lifeline Lorry

1985 July 26
by Paul Vallely

For weeks the requests had been trickling into the old British garrison post of El Geneina, the furthermost town in the west of Sudan and one of the centres of the famine which is spreading like a cancer throughout the vast reaches of Africa’s largest country.

These particular requests came from the chief of police at Beida, through the cursive handwriting of the little border town’s old scribe. At first they were for food. Then last week came a plea for shrouds.

‘We have nothing in which to bury our dead and 15 children died yesterday,’ said the letter addressed to Peter Verney, the Save the Children Fund (SCF) representative in Geneina.

Verney, a gentle young Englishman whose long blond hair and delicate hand movements would speak of languor in a less frenetic time, was clearly rattled. He had been trying for weeks to get a lorry to Beida, down to the south along the border with Chad. The problems which bedevilled him were the same as those which magnified many thousandfold, afflict the entire international relief effort in a nation where more than 11 million people are now said to risk starvation.

Food was coming in very slowly from Nyala, the town at the western end of Sudan’s creaking railway system. Fuel was in shorter supply. Verney was down to his last two barrels of diesel. There had been no flights in from Khartoum bringing cash from SCF headquarters; he had almost no money. The head of the Geneina local government system. Commissioner Sherife, who had three years earlier been removed from his post in the office of Sudan’s Commissioner of Refugees after United Nations’ officials compiled a dossier on alleged corruption and embezzlement of food stock, was not cooperating in the release of the SCF emergency grain.

Verney had just returned from negotiations with Ahmed Taishi, the head of the haulage firm with which SCF has a contract for local delivery. Asked to go to Beida, the contractor had unilaterally doubled the price. When Verney, given the dire circumstances had eventually agreed, Taishi trebled it. Verney, who has lived in Sudan for eight years and developed a nice line in Arabic invective, told the man that his religion was only on his lips not in his heart, that his god was his paunchy belly and that the deaths of the children of Beida would be on his head.

In desperation he turned to the Sudanese army which has hundreds of military trucks but which has so far not volunteered to put them at the disposal of the relief effort.

It was late when Verney approached the home of Brigadier Ibrahim Muhammad but the aid worker was beyond the bounds of good etiquette now. The brigadier, an urbane and studied man of the Zagawe warrior tribe, came out in his evening gown, a spotless white jellaba, to greet his visitor. After the lengthy exchange of formalities the officer listened attentively to Verney’s outline of the problems in Beida.

‘This is the situation everywhere’, the soldier said. ‘No food is reaching the extremities. It reaches the hands but not the fingers. Of course you can have one of my trucks.’

The lorry left Geneina the next day, though seven hours behind schedule after prolonged wranglings with Commissioner Sherife, who at first refused to release any grain and who then demanded that the lorry should carry seed for planting. The great web of Sudanese mercantilism is currently sticky with rather dubious intrigues which juggle consignments of free American sorghum seed with cash grants from the EEC to buy local seed. Verney threatened to fill the lorry with lentils, the only food he had left in his own store. In the end the army vehicle left carrying 20 sacks of millet seed, 30 sacks of sorghum seed and 100 smaller bags of sorghum food. There were also three rolls of shroud material purchased in the local souk.

For the first three hours the trip was uneventful. In normal times it takes between four and six hours to reach Beida and the lorry seemed to be making good time as the powerful six-wheel drive gouged through the soft mud and the waist deep water. The desert was covered with a gauze of green where little clover-like grasses had sprung up and the flat landscape offered a complete panorama from the vivid aquamarine sky filled with billowing cumulus in the east, to the magnificent African sunset of golds and purples in the west.

The storm came up quite suddenly. On the northern skyline a dense ink-black cloud took shape and with intimidating speed overtook the southbound lorry like some great stalking beast, bearing malevolent snarls of sheet lightning as it closed in. The downpour was torrential. Within minutes everything in the lorry was soaked through. Progress slowed to a crawl as the fine sand all around turned to a glutinous paste. Then the lorry stopped.

We were stuck there for nine hours until dawn broke and 60 local peasants arrived to dig us out. It took a further four hours to free and then push start the six-ton lorry with its eight-ton load. Within 10 minutes of setting out we were fast again, this time in a slow flowing wadi.

It was two days before we reached Beida, late at night. The lorry was parked in the army barracks and we were welcomed by Muhammad Ahmed Bashir, the local chief of police. Over sweet tea on the rafia mat before his, office he was effusive in his thanks for the food.

‘I will put it straight into the store, with other food.’ The other food? ‘Yes, we already have 140 bags in store but we have had no authority from Sherife or his nephew Ali Mansour to distribute it.’

Brushing aside expressions of concern, the portly policeman rose, picked up the hurricane lamp which was all that illuminated his conversation and said: ‘We will speak of that tomorrow. Come and see the refugees.’

It was a grotesque outing to wander through huddles of painfully thin people in their fitful sleep on the unsheltered ground, accompanied by a dozen of the town’s worthies with their lanterns and their intrusive torch beams.

The next morning, with the cover of darkness stripped away, the unmitigated squalor of the refugees’ life was revealed. In the market place children with no clothes rose from where they had slept on the sand.

Later in the morning Ali Mansour, the executive officer of the rural council based in faroff Habila, happened to visit.

‘Of course we must distribute the grain now’, he said. ‘You will take my photograph. This will be good for me.’

First the seed grain had to be unloaded into stores. Several hundred starving people surrounded the lorry to catch the odd grains which might trickle from the sacks as they were moved. Women crowed round the side of the vehicle holding their chipped enamel bowls in the cracks in the side of the truck. Dozens of children crawled beneath it, scrambling for individual seeds.

By the time that the food distribution began – the first here for four months – a crowd of about two thousand had gathered at the police station. At the first attempt workmen tipped 20 bags of grain into a large pile and the refugees, badly regulated in the way they were admitted to collect their single bowlful, soon were scrambling madly in a great swirl of bodies which ended in chaos.

Ali Mansour organized a second attempt. With the two thousand sitting in a great semicircle around the gate to the station, the first few moved forward to be served; the rest, fearing that they would be omitted as before, surged forward as well. Then the whips came out, with the platoon of soldiers striking out all around them in a vain attempt to control the frenzied crowd. One young soldier careered around the arc of people like a demented matador lashing out at everybody within his reach.

‘See these people are undisciplined. It is impossible to feed them’, said Ali Mansour triumphantly, ordering that no more bags should be opened. Then the food was locked away with the rest of the undistributed stocks.

On the hill, by the spreading cemetery where five new graves were being dug, refugee women were digging for berit, a coarse white grass root with little nutritional value but which is, at any rate, not poisonous like the leaves of the euphorbia bush to which some had turned in their desperation.

A little six-year-old boy called Imalis wandered past them, his face blank. He was naked, save for the loincloth below his grossly distended belly. In his hand he held his only possession, an empty begging bowl.

Five weeks ago his father died here. Yesterday his mother died too. He stood and watched the grave diggers and then, alone, walked slowly back to the market place.

from The Times 26 July 1985

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