Published in Boston Globe (USA)

December 6, 1999

Posted at



US Plan to Feed Sudan Rebels Rapped

Aid Groups Foresee Prolonged War




By Gunnar Willum and Bjørn Willum




NAIROBI - The US legislation authorizing food aid to Sudanese rebels has elicited warnings from humanitarian agencies that food deliveries could jeopardize aid operations and ''put aid workers at risk.''

President Clinton, who signed the bill last week, is considering using the food aid to enhance the military capabilities of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, or SPLA, a south Sudanese rebel group fighting to oust an Islamist government in the capital of Khartoum. Washington accuses the government of sponsoring international terrorism.

Since Sudan's civil war began in 1983, an estimated 1.5 million people have died, a majority of whom have starved to death as both sides have used food as a weapon. Aid organizations said a direct US alignment with rebels could be used by Khartoum to close down the UN-led Operation Lifeline Sudan, or OLS, a consortium of UN and private aid organizations feeding the millions of displaced across Sudan. The groups say their effort depends on the approval of the government.

''It is quite possible that the Sudan government would shut down the OLS and other aid agencies operating in Sudan,'' said Abigail Spring from the World Food Program, a UN agency participating in Operation Lifeline.

But the food program is also concerned that the US support could put the aid workers themselves at risk.

''If the US was to fly in support for the SPLA, the WFP and other aid agencies could become military targets,'' Spring said. ''Our aircraft could be mistaken for US planes and be shot at.''

Several agencies have stated publicly that they will not participate in any distribution of food aid to the People's Liberation Army. ''It would set a terrible precedent,'' said Marianne Leach from the Washington-based CARE.

CARE and seven other private organizations participating in Operation Lifeline have written to Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright requesting that the bill not be implemented. ''Food aid will put not only humanitarian aid workers at risk but also jeopardize vulnerable people in need,'' they wrote in a joint letter.

But the legislation is controversial not only because it could curtail aid efforts. The measure is intended to support the Sudan People's Liberation Army because it is fighting a government with ''a dismal human rights record,'' according to a State Department official. ''It's an extremely repressive regime, which supports international terrorism and slavery,'' the official said.

But according to the latest State Department human rights report, both the Sudanese government and the People's Liberation Army are behind slavery, recruitment of child soldiers, and murder.

Critics say aid has been misused by the People's Liberation Army and warn of putting too much faith in leader John Garang.

''It is insane to think that Garang is the savior of the south. Garang will either sell the food, give it to some of his friends, or deny it to people he doesn't like,'' a Western official said, adding that there were clashes last week between different army units.

''Both parties are only concerned with winning the war,'' said Gillian Wilcox from Operation Lifeline in Nairobi. ''Civilian lives are simply not a priority.''

While the northern government and various rebel factions in the south have negotiated for years, Albright officially lent her support to the peace process on her recent trip to Africa.

''I think we are all on a daily basis horrified by what is going on in Sudan and we believe that the process is the best way to go forward,'' Albright said before meeting Garang in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, in October.

But during the meeting, which was closed to the public, Albright promised continued support for the rebels, according to a UN official who followed the negotiations.

''Albright made a deal with Garang about more help in return for SPLA improving their human rights record, but Albright did not put pressure on Garang to conclude a peace,'' the UN official said.

''Giving food aid directly to the rebels would be fueling the war rather than putting pressure on both sides to end it. It would be an escalation,'' said Annette Weber of Amnesty International, the London-based human rights group.


Gunnar Willum reported from Nairobi, and Bjorn Willum from London.