Last week, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan became the first U.N. leader in 28 years to visit Sudan. He went there to persuade the government in Khartoum to allow more aid delivery to southern Sudan, parts of which the government has placed off-limits to aid groups because of heavy fighting between rebel and government forces.
The U.N. relief effort in Sudan - Operation Lifeline Sudan - is the biggest humanitarian operation in the world. It brings food and medicine to six million people, about 20 percent of Sudan's population.
But U.N. officials say that at least two-million people in southern Sudan have been denied aid because of a ban imposed by the government earlier this year on relief flights to southern areas where rebel forces are based. The conflict pits the Arab-dominated Islamic government in Khartoum against the rebels of the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army, who are non-Muslim.
The government said the ban was necessary because fighting between government troops and SPLA rebels had become so intense that the lives of the aid workers were in jeopardy.
But relief agencies say the ban has placed the people of the south in greater danger of starvation, and they have for weeks been calling on Khartoum to allow more aid flights. The primary reason for secretary- general Kofi Annan's recent trip to Sudan was to emphasize the need for more flights.
According to aid workers, Mr. Annan was at least partially successful. They say he has succeeded in getting government approval for food deliveries to more places in southern Sudan.
The secretary-general's special envoy for humanitarian affairs in Sudan, Tom Vraalsen, was with Mr. Annan in Khartoum. Mr. Vraalsen says though some areas in the south still remain off-limits, the Sudanese leaders agreed to expand the number of places that can receive aid.
"We can now fly all over the country - apart from the 18 denied locations, which are in Unity State-Western Upper Nile, Bahr el Ghazel and Eastern Equatoria," he said. "These are areas where there is intense fighting going on. So this is for security reasons. The government committed themselves to keep in touch with us, consult with us, if the fighting subsided, then they would give us access to these areas too."
Mr. Annan secured approval from Khartoum to allow aid shipments to be flown to 39 airstrips in the south that were previously off-limits to humanitarian agencies. When you include the sites that were already allowed, aid agencies can now deliver food to more than 160 places in the south.
But there are limitations to the agreement, as Mr. Vraalsen made clear. Within the region of Bahr el Ghazel, in southwestern Sudan, there are places that are off-limits to the U.N. and other agencies.
Because of the ban on aid deliveries to parts of Bahr el Ghazel, many women who live there have to trek long distances to obtain food for their families. Abuk Majok is one of them. To feed her five children, she had to walk from her home in Aweil West to a World Food Program distribution center at Madhol in northern Bahr el Ghazel, a distance of about 100 kilometers.
Dressed in a bright yellow sarong and with facial marks according to Dinka tradition, Ms. Majok says it took her five-days to travel to Madhol. She needed to make the journey because she and her children are completely dependent on food aid. She says her family has been displaced by the fighting and has no land of their own to cultivate.
George Nzomo, an official with the World Food Program in Madhol, says even those people who have land have not been able to grow food because of drought. In Sudan this year, rains that usually come in May arrived in July, which means the crops will be late.
Mr. Nzomo says the World Food Program provides aid to some 56,000 people in the area surrounding Madhol every month. But he says only the most vulnerable: the widowed, the very old, the sick and the displaced are eligible for food aid. There are many more people, he says, that need food, but he can not give it to them.
"Basically one of the biggest challenges is that we cannot afford to give everybody food, enough food," he said. "And also the other challenge is this insecurity, otherwise people would be able to cultivate and feed themselves."
In addition to the Bahr el Ghazel region, the Unity State area, also known as Western Upper Nile, has a number of towns that the government has declared off-limits to aid groups.
A spokesman for the rebels, Philip Aguir, says the government has imposed the ban on aid deliveries not because of the fighting in the area, but because Khartoum wants all the civilians who live in Western Upper Nile to leave. He says the government wants to give the area over completely to oil production, a major source of foreign capital. Denying people food, Mr. Aguir says, is a good way to force them to move.
"Khartoum is trying to create a buffer zone between the oil companies that are digging oil and the SPLA," he explained, "and this is by pushing the civilian population very far away. We now have more than 300,000 of the civil population that is on the move in the Western Upper Nile."
The government denies it is forcing people to relocate. The head of Sudan's Humanitarian Aid Commission, Sulaf al-Din Saleh, says the people have had to flee Unity State for only one reason: the SPLA and its leader, John Garang, have intensified the military campaign in the area.
"Garang is using international money, unfortunately legitimate institutional money, to kill even his own people and to waste our oil resources," Mr. Garang said.
The fighting between the rebel and government forces has been going on for 19-years and has cost an estimated two million lives, either by fighting or by starvation that is related to the fighting.
Though there have been many attempts to end what is Africa's longest-running civil war, they have all been unsuccessful. But in recent months, as civilian casualties mount, international pressure is building on both sides to end the fighting. Aid officials say ending Sudan's civil war will help bring an end to Sudan's humanitarian crisis.