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Dying in the dust a story from Sudan

June 27, 2005

By Matthew Green

PALIANG, Sudan (Reuters) – Sprawled on the ground with hisface pressed into the earth, the boy looked like he mightalready be dead.

Naked but for a pair of bangles on his ankles and whitedust caking his skin, the four-year-old had collapsed a fewsteps from a group of starving children sheltering under atree. It was as if he had been discarded.

Working as a reporter in Africa, it’s not uncommon to seepeople dying. For it to be a child, in a village in southernSudan, during a drought makes the event even less exceptional.What made this boy different was that just a few weeks before,the world had promised to help.

I’d flown into the Bahr el Ghazal region in late May with aReuters photographer and cameraman on a quick visit organizedby medical organization Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), whowanted to highlight worsening hunger, starting in the villageof Paliang.

It’s the kind of place you only know you have found whensomebody tells you. Apart from some huts, Paliang’s moststriking feature is a toppled rig for drilling boreholes, now arusting climbing frame for children with strength enough toplay.

Bicycles imported long ago from China with handlebarsdripping garlands of pink plastic flowers qualify as high-techitems.

Southern Sudan is sprinkled with thousands of Paliangs,villages of mud, wild dogs and short lives. Cars are a novelty,particularly for the dogs, fond of making suicidal dashes undertheir wheels; electricity is unheard of, roads are goat tracks.It is a land that globalization forgot.

FAILED RAINS

Mutterings about drought had started a few weeks earlier.Aid workers were talking about the worst crisis since a faminein 1998 when more than 60,000 people starved to death in theBahr el Ghazal region, fearing failed rains would force historyto repeat itself. I hadn’t heard of any other reporters headingto Bahr el Ghazal recently, we wanted to be the first.

The F-word is used with caution by charities with a strictdefinition for what constitutes a true “famine,” linked to thenumber of successive failed harvests, but vocabulary seemedimmaterial. In Paliang, it was obvious that people were soongoing to die, starting with the youngest.

Dozens of women cradling children with stick-like limbs hadgathered under a tree where Desma, an MSF nurse from Kenya, hadset up a table to dish out rehydration sachets for babies indanger of dying from diarrhoea.

Her brisk approach and frequent smiles seemed to help liftthe malaise as she weighed screaming children in a slingsuspended under the branches like a giant catapult, noting downevidence of malnutrition. Numbers weren’t necessary: infantswore the faces of old men.

The women waited in the shade with epic stoicism,recounting their ordeals like so many of Africa’s survivorswith the same casual tone I might use to describe watching thenew Star Wars film.

Of course the Nuer tribesmen had stolen our cows, one womanexplained. Wouldn’t you do the same if the drought had wipedout your crops and left you with nothing to eat apart fromwater lilies plucked from the marsh? Our Dinka warriors are tooweak to fight, they haven’t eaten.

Women often go bare-breasted in the heat of southern Sudan,where children run around wearing nothing but waistbands ofbeads and men carry spears. The ladies under the tree were nodifferent.

“Look, I have no milk for my baby,” one said, clutching herwithered right breast and pointing the nipple up toward myface. “How am I going to feed my child?”

PEACE DEAL

All this in what should have been a place of celebration.The northern government in Khartoum and the southern rebels ofthe Sudan People’s Liberation Army had signed a peace deal inJanuary to worldwide applause. On paper at least, Africa’slongest civil war was over.

Unlike the relatively young conflict in Sudan’s westernDarfur region, fighting in the south has raged on an off foralmost half a century. But now the country had defied thecynics: peace seemed possible.

Rich countries meeting in Oslo had promised billions ofdollars in reconstruction aid only a few weeks before our visit– but where was the money? Not in Paliang.

Emergency warehouses in neighboring Kenya were empty –donors had not been willing to buy the necessary food.

A woman in green beckoned. I followed with Reutersphotographer Antony Njuguna and cameraman David Mwangi,watching the back of the willowy figure as she led us past herhut.

Reaching into the branches of a tree, she plucked handfulsof scrubby leaves. Crushing them in a wooden mortar, she placedher haul in an aluminum pot perched on three stones over afire. A young man named Kerubinyo — the custodian of one ofPaliang’s bicycles — translated as the water boiled.

His forehead bore the horizontal scars of Dinka initiationrites. “I wish I could wipe them off,” he said. “They areuseless.”

Straining the dark green juice, women rolled the leavesinto golf-ball sized clods and popped them into their mouths,chomping slowly and forcing themselves to swallow.

Their children clustered around a second pot: the feast wasquickly done.

It was time to go. Unlike in many parts of Africa,Kerubinyo did not ask for a tip for his help, avoiding thatmoment of awkward eye contact with a new acquaintance thatmeans a few dollars must change hands. He pointed instead tohis stomach: “It hurts,” he said. “Can you help?”

Heading back to the MSF Land Cruiser I passed the boy lyingin the dust. A faint movement stirred his ribs: he wasbreathing. I realized I had been mistaken — he had not beenabandoned — a woman was sitting a few yards away watching.

Mother and son would starve together.

This is part of Reuters package of stories ahead of the G8summit in Gleneagles, Scotland in July and the Live 8 rockconcerts. It will also appear on Reuters special Live 8 WebSite (www.reuters.co.uk/live8)




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