For the past four weeks, the people of Sudan's Nuba Mountains have been receiving badly needed food aid. The aid, the first the region has received in years, was made possible because of a temporary cease-fire between government and rebel forces. But the cease-fire expired Sunday, and aid agency officials say it must be extended.
When the U.N. World Food Program began delivering food to the Nuba Mountain region last month, many people, especially those who live in remote areas, did not bother to come to the food distribution centers.
Food agency officials say Sudanese who lived far from the centers could not believe there would be any food left by the time they made the seven- or eight-hour trek to the center nearest them. But once news spread that there was plenty of food, they started coming to the centers in large numbers.
The Nuba Mountains are about 500 kilometers southwest of the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, and they have long been the scene of fighting between forces of Sudan's Islamic government and Christian and animist rebels.
Until the cease-fire, the government had consistently denied aid agencies access to the Nuba Mountains, an area where malnutrition is widespread, in part because years of fighting have hindered food production. A drought has aggravated the food shortages.
The World Food Program official who is coordinating the deliveries, Abdoulaye Balde, says the food aid has given hope to the people who live in the Nuba Mountains. He says they now believe the international community is going to help them.
"I think the importance of this drop at this particular time is the hope it has risen in the population because [they see] it as something significant," he said. "The world knows where they are and they know they will never die of hunger any more."
But their optimism may be short-lived. The four-week cease-fire expired Sunday and aid officials have left the Nuba Mountains. Mr. Balde, the WFP coordinator, spoke with VOA on his return to Nairobi.
Mr. Balde says, in the short term, the people should have enough food because, in addition to the food aid, they also have some food from the September harvest. But the harvest was poor, and Mr. Balde says by April many people will again be desperate for food.
Mr. Balde says his agency wants to find a way to deliver food to the region on a regular basis.
"WFP would like to have a continuing access and presence in Nuba to be able to continually assess the needs and be able to provide food as needed," he said. "In fact, we have done some assessment, and we estimated that about 45 percent of the population of Nuba would need food assistance as early as April."
Mr. Balde says the World Food Program now plans to seek permanent access to the area.
He says the United Nations is also hoping to be allowed to bring in non-food items such as health kits.