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Day thirteen
May 4, 2000

Precious cargo arrives

By Andrew Maykuth

Twelfth in a series

TALI, Sudan - Ater Awan yesterday guided his battered blue truck into this remote village near the front line of Sudan's civil war, where he was given a quiet welcome by officials eager for his precious cargo.

For three days Awan had driven 14 tons of American relief food deep into rebel-held southern Sudan to people displaced by the 17-year civil war in this vast African nation. Nearly two million people have died in the war, mostly from famine.

In Tali, a village hit just a day earlier by Sudanese air force bombers, the sorghum grain that Awan brought - and the American lentils carried by another truck - was greeted with relief.

The trucks' arrival allowed local officials to release the last few tons of food they had in their warehouses for residents who were still waiting for their March and April rations.

"Some people were beginning to get apprehensive," said John Rakwar, the representative for Norwegian People's Aid, one of the humanitarian organizations contracted by the U.S. Agency for International Development to distribute food aid in southern Sudan.

Awan's journey down the region's neglected dirt roads - Sudan has been at war for all but 11 years since it gained independence from Britain in 1956 - completed the final leg of an odyssey that began two months ago in the Gulf of Mexico.

A young boy receives his portion of sorghum in Tali, Sudan, during a monthly distribution of aid. Cooking oil, salt, and lentils were also distributed to the villagers of Mokido, a village about three miles from Tali.
*View more photos from Day 12
On March 5, a Qatar-flagged ship named the Farhulkhair set sail from Lake Charles, La., loaded with 8,950 tons of food from Midwestern farms for southern Sudan.

On April 14, the ship docked in Mombasa, Kenya, and unloaded its cargo of sorghum, red beans and cooking oil. Eight days later, a Kenyan driver named Francis Kuria left Mombasa with a tractor-trailer full of 35 tons of the sorghum for the 1,165-mile drive to Sudan's border.

On Sunday, Kuria's truck arrived in Koboko, Uganda, near the Sudanese frontier. The bags were transferred onto smaller trucks for delivery into Sudan.

One of those trucks was driven by Awan - one small load among the 10 million tons the American government donated this year to hungry people around the world.

Officials from Norwegian People's Aid were anxious to rush the food into Sudan before the rainy season turned the dirt roads into mush. The 270-mile trip that took Awan three days to complete might easily take a week in June, when the rains are at their peak.

Even in the early part of the rainy season, the roads were bad enough.

Awan yesterday drove his beat-up Hino truck - one of many captured by the rebels from the government - down a saturated road where gooey black mud clung in big clumps to his tires.

Sometimes the road was flooded for stretches of a hundred feet or more. Driving the sputtering truck was more like navigating a boat, the object being to keep the end from fishtailing in the muck.

The few bridges that have not fallen down were perilously repaired with logs, large rocks, or bent steel plates that sagged under the truck's load.

"You try to collect all the courage you can to cross those bridges," said Awan, 29, a former rebel fighter who has driven a truck for six years.

This was remote country, most of the land lightly forested and uncultivated. Young men wearing loincloths stood by the side of the road holding pears and bows they use to hunt bush rats.

Several older women appeared bare-breasted smoking pipes packed with pungent tobacco. Many of the Mundari people in this area still ritually scar their foreheads and faces to identify themselves with their tribe.

Awan's truck contained enough grain to feed 1,700 people for a month in Tali. The Norwegian People's Aid and its local Sudanese partners give out enough food to supply residents with half their monthly needs. The recipients are expected to find the rest from local sources - wild fruits, game, fish or locally grown crops such as peanuts, sesame or sorghum.

The food distribution was supposed to take place the day before, but the arrival of a Sudanese air force bomber that menaced the town for 90 minutes on Tuesday forced a postponement until yesterday. The plane dropped 24 bombs on Tali. One damaged the police station and one fell about 20 feet from a bunker where a dozen people huddled. No one was injured.

Although the Sudanese government announced April 19 that it had stopped bombing civilian targets in southern Sudan, the suspension appears to have had no effect in the towns along our route - Lainya and Tali were both bombed this week, and Lui, where Awan spent Tuesday night, was bombed only hours after we left town yesterday.

The effect of the frequent bombing runs was apparent in Tali, which has been slowly rebuilding since the Sudan People's Liberation Army captured the village three years ago when it swept government troops out of much of southern Sudan. The Khartoum government now controls only big towns such as Juba, Bor and Wau.

Since the bombs began to fall more frequently, the organization that runs the local hospital moved operations a mile out of town. Villagers who come to fetch their monthly food rations leave town as soon as they can. A market that had begun to flourish in November shut down after bombs scared customers away.

Today, some of the 24,000 people in Tali who are designated as recipients will begin to consume the sorghum, red beans and lentils.

For Awan, the trip represents no extraordinary feat. He does it all the time. After unloading his cargo, he revved up his truck and headed back to the Ugandan border. With an empty truck, he hopes to arrive by tomorrow. By Sunday, he will set out again with another load of relief food.

"I feel good that I came all this way and delivered this food," Awan said. "These are my people. I pray that God gave me the power to carry this food here. Now I will go back to bring more."

*On to Day 13

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