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In Sudan, agencies prepare for worst

AKOBO, Sudan — Three-day-old Odong Obong lay in the hospital bed, his pencil-thin arms almost motionless and his shriveled, gaunt face resembling that of an elderly man.

Emaciated babies and young children throughout the ward bore the signs of hunger: exposed ribs and distended stomachs. Outside, old villagers reclined motionless in the shade, too frail to walk.

The U.N. calls this the "hungriest place on Earth" after years of drought and conflict, with aid agencies already feeding 80,000 people here. A doctor says the worst is yet to come.

Two years of failed rains and tribal clashes have laid the foundation for Africa's newest humanitarian crisis. The World Food Program quadrupled its assistance levels from January to March in the Akobo region of southeastern Sudan.

International aid agencies are bracing for the worst. Even if spring rains materialize this year, the harvest won't come in until fall.

"And if there is no rain, it will get worse," said Galiek Galou, one of three doctors at the hospital in this town on the border with Ethiopia.

"If you stay here for a week you'll have problems, even if you have money," he said. "There is nothing to buy."

The food crisis is also a legacy of a devastating north-south civil war of more than 21 years that left 2 million people dead and many more displaced. That conflict is separate from the war in the western Sudanese region of Darfur, which began in 2003 and has killed 300,000.

The aid groups Save the Children and Medair have canvassed the Akobo community for the past week, searching for the hungriest children. They found 253 who they classified as severely malnourished, meaning they will die without immediate intervention. The children are enrolled in a feeding program that relies primarily on fortified peanut butter.

At the hospital, one toddler who appears to be in the worst shape is 2-year-old Dhoah Thoan, whose skin hangs off his body in an alarming way. He has skinny arms and an oversize stomach but bright brown eyes. If he had not been brought in for treatment, he would have died, Galou said.

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