Sunday, October 30, 2005

I Surrender

I've finished reading Surrender or Starve, the book that Robert B Kaplan published in 1988 about the famine and his travels in Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea. I finished it a while ago in fact but I didn't know what to say about it apart from the bathetic observation that it was strangely salutary to read a book by someone who was there at the time that mentioned Live Aid but twice and Bob Geldof not at all.

I had decided to read a book written a good while ago to try and help me get some perspective on the problems of 2005, and the depressing conclusion is that nothing much has changed.

God may be responsible for drought in the horn of Africa but people are responsible for famine.

Here is a story from the end of the book. I'm taking the liberty of quoting extensively because it in turn is taken from a story entitled Riding the Lifeline Lorry" (The Times, July 26, 1985) by a journalist called Paul Vallely.

For weeks the requests had been trickling into the old British garrison post of El Geneina, the furthermost town in the west of Sudan....
These particular requests came from the chief of police at Beida, through the cursive handwriting of the little border town's scribe. At first they were for food. Then last week came a plea for shrouds.
"We have nothing in which to bury our dead, and 15 children died yesterday," said the letter addressed to Peter Verney, the Save the Children (SCF) representative in Geneina.
As Vallely related the story, so little food was coming into Geneina from Khartoum on account of floods and other difficulties that there was not enough to send onward to Beida, about fifty miles south along Sudan's western border with Chad. Those dying of starvation in Beida were all Chadian refugees, and the local Sudanese commissioner Sherife was not cooperating in the release of emergency grain. Finally, however, Verney managed to secure 150 sacks of food and seed. Then the head of the Sudanese haulage firm doubled and tripled the price. Verney did not have enough cash on hand to pay for the lorry and in desperation went to the local army brigadier in Geneina, Ibrahim Muhammad, who told Verney, "This is the situation everywhere. No food is reaching the extremities. It reaches the hands but not the fingers. Of course you can have one of my trucks."

Three hours after leaving Geneina for Beida, the food lorry got caught in a torrential rain. Vallely and the driver whom Verney had rented were stuck for nine hours in the mud; sixty peasants helped to dig the two men out.

It was two days before we reached Beida. . . . We were welcomed by Muhammad Ahmed Bashir, the local chief of police. Over sweet tea on the rafia mat before his office he was effusive in his thanks for the food.

"I will put it straight into the store with the other food." The other food? "Yes, we already have 140 bags in store but we have had no authority from Sherife or his nephew Ah Mansour to distribute it."
Because of Sudanese bureaucracy, Chadians were starving to deathwith food only a few feet away. The next day, Alt Mansour, the executive officer of the rural council, agreed to distribute the grain. "You will take my photograph," he said to a news agency photographer with Vallely. "This will be good for me."

The distribution caused a riot among the refugees. Sudanese soldiers responded by lashing at the crowd with whips in all directions. The news agency photographer started snapping away, even though editors had become bored with photos of starving Africans. The photographer confided to Vallely that starving people being whipped had novelty value that would result in his pictures gaining wide distribution. Sure enough, the photos of the riot in Beida were picked up in Europe.

Now read this piece "Darfur's Despair" published earlier this month in the Economist and describing Geneina more than two decades after the incidents described above.

There is nothing more I can say.


Anonymous said...

I found a photograph of Paul Vallely in that lorry to Beida just the other day. Memories! He should have stuck around for the camel trains I subsequently organised. Anyway, personally I haven't surrendered: a bit broke these days, maybe, but the resilience of the Darfur people I meet is still humbling. See

Nick Browne said...

It's an honour to hear from you.