Koboko, hub of relief effort, is a ghost town no more
Ninth in a series
By Andrew Maykuth
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
KOBOKO, Uganda - This once-sleepy border post best known as the home village of former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin became a thriving town thanks to the millions of dollars in relief aid that flows through it.
"When I came here in 1993, this was a ghost town," said David Taban, the area representative for Norwegian People's Aid, one of the humanitarian organizations that use Koboko as a staging area for relief work in nearby southern Sudan.
Now, Koboko's dusty streets are lined with offices of relief organizations, transport companies, bars, restaurants, and retail shops. The only industry here is humanitarian aid, much of it bankrolled by the U.S. government.
With the equatorial sun directly overhead yesterday, Francis Kuria guided his tractor-trailer, carrying 32 metric tons of American sorghum grain, into Koboko, past the signs for the compounds of World Food Program, Catholic Relief Services, Lutheran World Relief, and Adventist Development and Relief Agency.
James Njoroge, 21, Francis Kuria's son and assistant driver, refills a fresh-water tank on the truck in preparation for the return trip to Kenya.
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He parked his rig in the compound of Norwegian People's Aid, the organization contracted by the U.S. Agency for International Development to distribute 8,100 metric tons of food that arrived April 14 in a ship at the Kenyan port of Mombasa.
For the last nine days, Kuria has hauled the food from the Indian Ocean port to Koboko, a journey of 1,165 miles. Yesterday, most of the 110-pound bags of grain, dusty from two days of travel on dirt roads, were off-loaded to smaller beat-up trucks for shipment across the border into rebel-held southern Sudan. The food will be distributed at camps for people displaced by the nation's 17-year-old civil war.
Norwegian People's Aid is in a hurry to ship the grain into Sudan before the rainy season makes many of the roads impassable. The first trucks are scheduled to depart for Sudan today.
For Kuria, a Kenyan driver for M.A. Bayusuf & Sons Ltd., yesterday's delivery marked the end of his responsibility for the grain. He and his 21-year-old son, James, the assistant on the truck, will begin their return trip to Kenya today.
"I want to take a bath," said Kuria, 56, who sleeps in a bunk behind the cab of his truck along with his son. He was miffed that he had to pay a Ugandan woman 14 cents a jug for water to refill a tank on his truck from which he draws water to clean, cook and drink.
The handoff of the grain to smaller trucks that can handle southern Sudan's rugged roads is one of the complicating factors that make Sudan one of the costliest places to deliver humanitarian aid in the world, according to logistics officers for the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.N. World Food Program, which deliver the bulk of food aid to the war-ravaged region.
Each ton of sorghum that Kuria carried to Koboko was valued at $158, according to the truck's manifest. It cost NPA $165 to handle each ton at Mombasa and transport it to Koboko, a cost inflated by the dilapidated roads of Kenya and Uganda.
But those costs are inexpensive compared with the $201 it costs to deliver each ton 270 miles to Tali, a town where NPA operates a feeding center in Sudan.
USAID last year spent $231.1 million on southern Sudan, and nearly 90 percent of that was for food aid. The budget for this year is only a quarter of what was spent last year, when Sudan was overcoming a devastating drought.
The U.S. government spent an average of $688 to buy and deliver each of 8,570 tons of grain delivered to Sudan by NPA, one of several humanitarian agencies contracted to feed people displaced by war. The cost of the grain, most of it grown by Midwestern farmers, is less than a quarter of the total delivery price.
But many of the two million Sudanese affected by the war cannot be reached by road. The World Food Program, which is responsible for feeding many of the most remote populations, relies heavily on airlifting aid to the inaccessible areas at a cost of up to $1,400 a ton.
"There are not many places in the world where we have such extensive air operations," said Russ Ulrey, the chief of logistics for the World Food Program's regional office in Nairobi, Kenya.
Much of the World Food Program aid is flown out of El Obeid in government-held northern Sudan or from Lokichokio, a Kenyan village near the Sudanese border that also has expanded into an aid metropolis like Koboko.
Aid efforts for Sudan have been obstructed by the civil war in which rebels from the predominantly Christian and animist south are seeking autonomy from the Muslim and Arab north.
The government of Sudan, which maintains garrison cities in the rebel-held south, frequently bans flights into the south, affecting those aid agencies that work under the banner of Operation Lifeline Sudan, the U.N. body that coordinates aid efforts in Sudan.
The flight bans do not affect NPA because it takes its food in by road, avoiding government-held areas.
NPA, whose roots lie in the Norwegian labor movement, is unlike many humanitarian aid groups that try to be neutral in conflicts such as the one in Sudan. NPA does not hide the fact that it supports the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, which leads the insurrection.
In March, when the rebels demanded that aid groups sign agreements on food distribution or halt their operations, 11 organizations - including CARE, International Oxfam, World Vision and Save the Children - withdrew staff and suspended their programs.
But NPA remained. It has used Sudanese contractors with close links to the rebel movement to carry out its deliveries.
"We're trying to build capacity among the Sudanese people," said David Taban, the Sudanese staff member of NPA.
Last year, Sudanese planes dropped bombs on an NPA hospital in the town of Yei, which was held by the government until rebels captured it in 1997. Three weeks ago, Sudanese planes attacked an NPA feeding center in Tali.
Yesterday, Sudanese driver Ater Awan, 29, supervised the loading of 13 tons of sorghum brought from Mombasa. The grain was put on his Japanese Hino truck, which is owned by a Sudanese company, Pabsent Ltd.
"I'm very happy to take this food to our people," said Awan, a former rebel soldier. "They're really suffering."
On to Day 10