NAIROBI: A fly-covered baby crawls on the baked earth of southern Sudan watched by a vulture: a brutal but iconic photograph of famine that shocked the world two decades ago. Today, aid workers warn that deadly famine will return in a matter of weeks, killing tens of thousands, as civil war in what is now South Sudan continues.
The crisis is man-made and for those who witnessed the fighting in the 1990s, it is a depressing repetition of the past, featuring the very same leaders.
“The same politicians and their supporters are fighting for power, and once again civilians are paying the price,” said Peter Moszynski, an aid worker during the famine of the 1990s who has returned to work there once again.
The current civil war broke out in mid-December after sacked Vice President Riek Machar was accused by President Salva Kiir of a failed coup attempt.
Thousands have been killed and over 1.5 million people have fled more than seven months of fighting between government troops, mutinous soldiers and ragtag militia forces divided by tribe.
Civilians have been massacred, patients murdered in hospitals and churches, and entire towns, including key oil-producing hubs, have changed hands several times.
It is a grim repeat of war two decades ago – before South Sudan split from the north – when rebels battling the Islamist government in Khartoum also split along ethnic lines to fight among themselves.
“There are horrible similarities with then and now, and it is clear there is a famine looming,” Moszynski said, speaking from oil-rich Unity state, one of the hardest-hit areas.
Nearly 4 million people – one third of the country – face “dangerous levels” of hunger, and 50,000 children are facing death from malnutrition, the U.N. has said. It has called the hunger crisis “the worst in the world.”
Machar led a 1991 coup against rebel commanders – a decade-long war within a war – before striking a deal that would see him become vice president of the world’s youngest nation at independence in 2011.
“The result has been the same type of ethnic conflict which came about in 1991, only worse, and the development of the new nation has been set back by years,” said John Ashworth, who has worked with churches in what is now South Sudan for three decades.
Communities have split between Kiir’s powerful Dinka, the largest tribe, and Machar’s Nuer, the second largest.
The U.N. has been unusually blunt as to who is to blame. Aid chief John Ging has called the “man-made” crisis the result of “a political disagreement between two powerful individuals.”
Many aid workers fear famine zones could be declared as soon as late August, with parts of Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile states at highest risk.
Famine implies acute malnutrition in over 30 percent of people, and at least two deaths per 10,000 people every day.
Skeletal children are already being seen.
“It is so depressing,” said Vincent Hoedt, who worked for Doctors Without Borders (MSF) during the late 1990s drilling water pumps, and this month returned from the war-ravaged town of Bentiu, where 40,000 civilians shelter behind the razor-wire fences of a U.N. peacekeeping base.
“The sad cycle of seemingly endless war continues, even if that has been broken by moments of quiet and of happiness,” he said. Even in areas where there is peace, he added, mud tracks are swamped by torrential rains.
Moszynski recalled how in the previous war, he’d hear at night the howls of hyenas, who would grab babies from mothers too weak to fend them off. Today he is “kept awake by gunshots.”
The U.N. is again flying in food and aid at enormous cost. The International Committee of the Red Cross is airdropping food for the first time since the war in Afghanistan in 1997.
Tens of thousands are reported to have died in the Sudanese crisis of 1993 – which came just five years after a famine in which some 250,000 died – mainly in regions straddling tribal boundaries between Nuer and Dinka. Famine was again declared in 1998, when some 70,000 people died.
The traumatic photograph of baby and vulture – which won South African photographer Kevin Carter a Pulitzer Prize, shortly before his suicide – was taken in 1994 in the village of Ayod in Jonglei.
Much has changed in South Sudan: Most importantly, the rebels are now battling their own government in Juba.
But old reports seem fresh today.
In a prescient warning, Human Rights Watch in 1993 called on both sides to “correct their own abuses or risk a continuation of the war on tribal or political grounds in the future.”
Then as now, both sides were accused of war crimes, including massacres, torture, rape, targeting civilian populations and recruiting child soldiers.
Today, teacher-turned-refugee James Tut, who fled to Kenya in January, has little hope.
“This is not a case of those who don’t remember history are condemned to repeat it,” Tut said.
“The problem here is that our leaders simply don’t care.”