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Sudan aid agencies battle starving population

6/27/2005 1:20am

By Opheera McDoom

MAYO, Sudan, June 26 (Reuters) - Tiny southern Sudanese Martin Atiyan's hollowed cheeks screwed up into a scowl as he hit out at his thin diseased mother trying to breast-feed him. At 3 months he weighs half as much as a normal new-born baby.

But in this feeding centre for severely malnourished children between 6 months and 5 years old, Martin is not an unusual case. The centre, run by a Sudanese aid agency on a shoe-string budget deals with about 40 cases like Martin each month.

The feeding centre operates in the Mayo refugee camp, not in war-torn areas like Darfur or southern Sudan, but situated a few kilometres outside the booming capital Khartoum.

The United Nations estimates at least 2 million people live in camps or slums surrounding Khartoum. They receive little aid from international donors.

The world body's top envoy in Sudan, Jan Pronk, has described the conditions in the camps as worse than those in Darfur, where over the past 2 years around 2 million refugees fled fighting to makeshift camps. Some of the Khartoum camps are more than 20 years old.

In Mayo camp, about 37,000 people live in squalid conditions. Most fled more than 2 decades of civil war in southern Sudan or the more recent conflict in Darfur.

Every month at least two children die of malnourishment in the clinic. About half Sudan's population of 30 million are children.

The centre is run by the al-Manar non-governmental organisation (NGO) and is often forced to turn away children who are not in the right age group or who may be moderately malnourished, because they do not have the money to cope with the demand.

Martin was accepted as a special case because he was so severely malnourished. His tiny arms are as thick as an adult's finger.

Martin's mother is ill and one of her breasts is infected so she does not produce enough milk feed her children. Her two older children had also been treated at the centre.

"My milk is bad but my husband has no job so there's no money to buy canned milk," said Deborah Majak, who fled fighting in the south 10 years ago to come to Mayo.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) ran the centre until last year. But after more than a decade of work there they had to hand over to a local NGO saying the root causes of the problems in the camp were poverty and a need for development.

MSF usually concerns itself with emergencies and al-Manar says it took its money to Darfur last year.


The problem of those trying to survive around Khartoum is little known and few international NGOs can raise money for operations there. Al-Manar tries to spread health awareness among the mothers, many of whom are also malnourished or sick, to prevent repeat cases.

"But there's so much we cannot do because we don't have the money," said Fatma Abdel Majid, the field coordinator of the centre. Many of the locals who work in the clinic had to take pay cuts of up to half their salaries when al-Manar took over from MSF.

Some donors say it is the Sudanese government's responsibility to look after the displaced in the slums and they give instead to agencies working in the south and to the emergency operations in Darfur. But the governor of Khartoum says he just does not have the budget to cater for all the displaced people in the capital.

Hilary Benn, the British minister for international development, said during a trip to Sudan this month that the ultimate goal for these people was to take them back home after a peace deal signed in January ended more than 2 decades of civil war in the south.

But donors have been slow to deliver on more then $4.5 billion in aid pledges to Sudan, which means people continue to starve and die of simple diseases like measles and tuberculosis in the south.


Mayal Bol travelled three days to Mayo from Abyei in the south to find free medical treatment. He like many others in the clinic suffer from secondary diseases caused by malnutrition.

His body is riddled with tuberculosis, he is covered in sores and he walks with difficulty with a long staff to support his bony legs. From behind he looks like a tired old man, but Bol is just 15.

"I stay up every night vomiting and cannot sleep," he says in a high-pitched, but muted voice. "I came to stay with my uncle here because I could not pay for treatment at home," he added. The frail boy was also accepted at the centre as a special case, although he was 10 years older than the other children there.

Abdel Majid said the families of those infected with tuberculosis were also infected with the contagious disease, but the clinic did not have the money to do tests and treat the families.

"This means when they return home they can be reinfected by their families and the problem starts again -- but our hands are tied," she said.

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