The White Nile, which sweeps dreamily through long miles of sand, thorn bushes and waterlilies, for more than a year formed a silent barrier that held fast the unsettling secrets of this war-torn region, the heart of Africa's largest country.
Then, in recent months, relief flights began landing again at a barren airstrip carved into the dirt at the edge of this town, providing a window into the interior of Sudan's civil war. And a barge laden with food traveled downriver from the northern capital of Khartoum, with stops at towns and villages along the way.
When international relief workers arrived in Yirol, on the other side of the Nile from Bor, they found 30 people left in town. In Rumbek, there were three. In busy Kongor, only about a third of the original population of 150,000 was left. Most of the rest had fled. More than 20,000 had died. There were few young children, no cows and no grain.
The story in Bor was almost as bad. First, there had been floods in 1991, which drove families with their cattle southward into regions ridden with cattle disease. The cattle died. Then, in December last year, the raids began--vicious fighting between rival tribal factions that led to the theft of the rest of the cattle and the slaughter of most of Bor's remaining men. The women, children and elders remaining were walking bones, people on the brink of starvation.
"They've been in the bush, just eating the leaves from the trees mainly," Ywomo Arop, a U.N. World Food Program worker at Bor, said in an interview. "A lot of lives have been lost. In December, it was not unusual for 100 a day to die. Now, it is better. Now, one dies, or two, or three, or four."
The emerging dimension of the misery in southern Sudan has prompted U.S. officials to call it the world's "most silent" famine, a looming crisis that rivals the much more publicized starvation in nearby Somalia but that has gone largely undocumented for a year because most access to the region was blocked.
About 1.7 million of southern Sudan's residents have been displaced from their homes in nine years of civil war, and up to 800,000 are in danger of starvation, particularly if fighting resumes in the most troubled regions, international agencies say.
"While there is competition for emergency relief funds in many parts of the world, we believe that the needs for emergency assistance in southern Sudan should have the highest priority because nowhere else in the world are people in such dire straits," the World Food Program said in a statement Wednesday.
The agency, the United Nations' food arm, also said it needs $130 million for relief work in southern Sudan but only $14.9 million has been raised.
"Somalia has received understandably the majority of assistance," said one aid worker, who, like most, preferred to remain unidentified, "but all of the people doing assessments are saying it is much worse in southern Sudan, or in all events just as bad."
U.S. officials, who have hinted they might be prepared to consider setting up safe areas for delivery of relief supplies in southern Sudan under a U.N. mandate if the situation worsens, said Sudan now represents one of America's biggest policy challenges in Africa.
"Southern Sudan has become one of the world's darkest humanitarian nightmares," Herman Cohen, former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told Congress last month.
"It is a chaotic territory where civil war, disease, homelessness and hunger form a tapestry of tragedy for millions of Sudanese," he said. ". . . . In at least some areas, people are already dying in large numbers, at rates comparable to the worst situations in Somalia."
Sudan's war has also taken on international dimensions because the country stands on the brink of two civilizations in Africa, the Muslim-Arab north and the south, which is predominantly black and both Christian and animist. And a 3-year-old Islamic fundamentalist government in Khartoum heightened the war's religious aspect when it declared the conflict a jihad to which fundamentalists all over the Arab world have pledged their support.
Though the government has since moved strongly to play down any religious agenda in the war, it was largely the fact that thousands of those dying in the south are Christian that prompted a visit to the region by Pope John Paul II earlier this year. The Pope said then that "the life of your communities is deeply affected . . . by a breakdown in the good relations that should exist between Christians and Muslims."
At issue for many Arabs in the Middle East is what is seen as Islam's inevitable march through Africa, and it was Islam to which Sudan's leader, Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, attributed last year's devastatingly effective offensive by the government in the south.
"We prayed to Allah, who provided us with strength," he told a provincial gathering last year. "The army troops and the Popular Defense Forces men shouted 'Allahu Akbar!' ("God is great!") which was echoed by the forest trees, and which helped destroy the strongholds of the rebels."
Officials of Christian churches have accused the Khartoum government of expelling priests and pastors from the south, closing down churches and even bulldozing places of worship in Khartoum. They say workers from Islamic relief organizations, such as the Dawa al Islamiya, have forced starving people in the south to convert to Islam before receiving aid.
"There are an awful lot of people who believe the spread of Islam in the south and in Africa, for that matter, is an ongoing and necessary process. One official told me that the Islamization and Arabization program is a historical imperative," one Western diplomat in the capital said.
"From a historical standpoint, it was hard to argue with him," he said. "It's been happening for centuries. There is an appeal to illiterate, poor black Africans who have been suffering from the ills of their own tribal and religious systems, and Christianity is skin deep, if that, among most Africans. Much of the Christianity there has been from the same kind of conversions they're accusing the Muslims of now. The Sudanese government has used food and medicine as a means of trying to convert southerners to Islam, but in fairness, it didn't invent this idea."
The Islamic government in Khartoum this year has attempted to minimize any religious aspects of the war, and it has said publicly that it realizes there is no longer any possibility of ending the war militarily.
"There is not a religious factor in the war, in our view," said Mohammed Amin Khalifa, head of Sudan's National Council and chief delegate to peace talks in Nigeria.
Referring to John Garang, head of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, the rebel organization in the south, Khalifa said:
"When . . . Garang went to the World Council of Churches, he used to say the war is between Muslims in the north and Christians in the south. Naturally, they (the council) assisted him. When he used to go to the East Bloc, he would talk about the proletariat fighting against the forces of imperialism. Naturally, they helped him, too. He would go to the West and say, help us in the democratization of Sudan. He would go to South Africa and say the war in Sudan is an ethnic war, we are black and they want to impose themselves on us.
"Actually, the war in the south of Sudan is not a religious war; it is not an ethnic war; it is a political one, over the question of the identity of the Sudanese people. We don't want to say we are 100% Muslim. We are a multi-religious, multicultural, multilingual country, and we are going to have to find a way of living together."
Sudan's civil war first erupted in 1952, reflecting a history of southern disgruntlement with underdevelopment and exploitation of the south. But when it broke out again in 1983, it did so with a new religious overtone, long before Sudan's fundamentalist regime took power in 1989. Months after the war resumed, the northern government imposed Islamic law in the south, setting the tone for much of the conflict since.
The war rumbled along for years, with the government taking territory during annual dry-season offensives, only to lose it again to the Liberation Army when the spring rains began.
But last year was different.
First came the toppling of Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam, whose regime had been one of the Liberation Army's primary backers, cutting off a major supply line and possibly opening new routes of attack into the south.
Next, the army replaced legions of less-than-enthusiastic southern troops with committed northerners.
Most important, the Liberation Army itself began falling apart, with two major tribal factions breaking away from leader Garang's main organization and launching their own attacks against Garang's forces.
The result was the government's seizure of several major towns in the south, beginning with Pochala on the Ethiopian border and climaxing with the Liberation Army's former strongholds of Juba and Torit.
As fighting worsened, the government in Khartoum cut off access to southern Sudan by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and other relief organizations were driven out either by the fighting or by the Liberation Army's failure to grant safe passage into rebel-controlled territories.
In the middle of what has become known as a reign of terror in Juba last summer, two American aid workers were executed on espionage charges as government forces held the town's population hostage while rebels shelled the town from outside. Two others were arrested and have not since been heard from, prompting strong protests from Washington that still have not been resolved. Several U.N. employees also have been inexplicably detained.
The result of the turmoil has been that international aid agencies have not had access to much of southern Sudan for at least eight months--in some areas for a year and a half--and some rural regions have not been visited in a decade because of a lack of infrastructure in the south.
The situation took a turn for the better in December, when the government, facing mounting international isolation in the wake of a U.N. vote firmly condemning human rights violations in Sudan, signed agreements with international agencies that again opened relief corridors into the south.
On Tuesday, Justice Minister Abdelaziz Shidu told foreign reporters that his nation rejected charges by the United Nations and human rights groups of routine torture, detentions without trial, summary executions and a campaign against blacks. He said Khartoum has made progress in turning international public opinion.
But analysts said the Khartoum government, watching U.S. Marines land in nearby Somalia, feared that the international community would attempt to mount a similar intervention in southern Sudan, a proposal that in fact some relief organizations had already made.
"I think the government realizes that the West is just not going to sit back and let them fight this war like they have. Bosnia-Herzegovina and Somalia have broken the ground for humanitarian intervention," one aid worker said. "If things get much worse, there might be a precedent where a sovereign state is actually forced to set up safe havens."
The grim reports from places such as Bor and Kongor reflect what workers found when they arrived under the new agreements in January.
Most of the worst recent famine, they say, has not been the result of any government action; Khartoum has launched no offensive this year and signed a cease-fire with the Liberation Army last month in advance of scheduled peace talks. Instead, they say, starvation is occurring because of mounting factional fighting among tribes in the south.
"What I saw was awful," Don Petterson, the American ambassador in Khartoum, said in an interview after making a trip to the south. "I've seen it before, but it doesn't make it any easier to accept what you see, which was severely malnourished people. The kind of stuff you see is comparable to the worst of what you will see anywhere."
Compounding the problem, new factional fighting broke out last week around Kongor, the most devastated region, when the Garang faction attacked the breakaway Nasir faction, forcing suspension of daily relief flights and prompting the Khartoum government itself to appeal for outside "pressure" to halt the fighting.
Factional warfare has also prompted some relief workers to fear the onset of the kind of warlordism that has plagued Somalia.
The food barge on the Nile, for instance, was hijacked by a Liberation Army faction, and half its food cargo was stolen.
"The frightening thing about this for us is that the (rebel) commander seemed to be acting alone, despite the assurances of the head guy in Nairobi that he was in control of all his forces," one relief worker said.
In another case, a plane delivering supplies farther south was boarded at a stopover and its passengers were stripped of their belongings and passports.
Relief pilots have told stories of being held at gunpoint by rebel commanders and delayed for hours.
"They say it was some kind of rebel faction 'freedom fighters,' but really it was the James Gang," one pilot said.
"There's a lot less security than there used to be. It's a lawlessness you see now. There's no sense of control."