How the war in the Gulf affects the famine in Africa

Jeremy Harding

Ms Sandra Heaney was sitting in the Acropole Hotel, having failed to leave the country. Not Greece – she was 1500 miles from the shores of the Aegean in a dusty, impoverished tip of a city. The Acropole is a Greek family business in Khartoum. The proprietors and the picture on the hotel stationery are the only connections with Athens, both of them tenuous.

Stranded in Khartoum, where it can take a lot of effort and good fortune to organise a prompt exit visa, Sandra Heaney was much nearer to Riyadh, Kuwait City and Baghdad than to any European capital. Had she taken a lively interest in world affairs, the Gulf would have been the focus of her attention just before Christmas.

The Sudanese Government under President Omar Hassan Ahmed el Bashir, an Islamic fundamentalist backed by the highly influential Muslim Brotherhood, served early notice of its support for Saddam Hussein. The British and Americans in Khartoum were already laying plans for the safety of their citizens in the run-up to war. Their main source of worry was not the regime but the anti-Alliance elements in Sudan which might take wildcat reprisals against expatriates. In 1988 the Acropole was bombed by members of the Abu Nidal group; the operation was a resounding success. Patrons of the Acropole are on the whole Westerners; on the whole, aid workers. Seven of these were killed.

None of this bothered Sandra. There were at least four weeks to go before the war and, for what it was worth, she was neither British nor American but Australian. She was a midwife who had been posted to a health and nutrition programme in Sudan’s Red Sea Province, on the border with Eritrea. By the time she applied for her exit visa, conditions at the project were her sole preoccupation. She was planning, reluctantly, to take a few weeks off and return to the province, war or no war. I assume that is what she did.

A terrible drought (yet another) has taken hold of Sudan and Eritrea. The numbers threatened by famine (yet again) are high. Six million people, one-third of Sudan’s rural population, is at risk. In Eritrea the figure is smaller, but the population, already culled by war with the Ethiopian Government, is at most four million strong. Of these, over half are probably in jeopardy. In the neighbouring Ethiopian province of Tigray, matters are equally bad. The Horn alone accounts for half of the individuals in Africa facing starvation.

Three other countries, besides Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea, are in serious trouble: Angola, Mozambique and Liberia. Although climate is a significant factor in most cases, war is also responsible for this new round of African famine. The governments of Angola and Mozambique have slugged it out with South Africa and its friends for more than fifteen years; Liberia has been torn apart by tribal strife since the middle of last year. In all three cases there are more sets of figures, should we require them, but the statistics themselves have become shorthand platitudes.

Sandra Heaney had some more intelligible figures about the project at Gadem Gafrit (her rough translation: ‘a green place between the hills’). The first number she gave was three; it came up in a discussion of the drought. She could remember distinctly the three days that rain fell on Gadem Gafrit in 1990. There was a day in January, an afternoon shortly after the end of Ramadan in April and another afternoon in November.

Rain patterns in north-eastern Sudan and Eritrea vary with altitude and proximity to the coast. As a general rule, however, the best rains should fall between June and September with ‘small rains’ in April and, in some places, towards the end of the year. The families in the camp at Gadem Gafrit, about two thousand of them, have not had a successful cereal or vegetable crop since January 1990. The drought in 1989 was also severe, but Gadem Gafrit lies in the wide drainage below the hills of northern Eritrea and, even when rainfall is poor, there is normally a limited supply of water in its wells. Two successive years of drought have dried this up. In desperation, new wells were dug last year, but the water became salty. By now, most people are in serious trouble.

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