AKAK, Sudan (AP) - A spidery little boy, bruised by the butt of an enemy gun, crawled across a sun-baked airstrip scooping up corn that trailed from a torn bag of relief food.
Majok Majok, 10, blew dust off the large kernels and dropped them onto the small pile given to his mother. He had escaped death in a raid on his village, and now he was trying to survive starvation.
A U.N. agency began air-dropping tons of food from a cargo plane Monday to help Majok and an estimated 700,000 others facing serious shortages of food in mostly rebel-held areas of southern Sudan.
Although far smaller in scale than the famines that threatened starvation for 1.5 million people in Somalia in 1992 and millions in Ethiopia in 1984, the Sudan shortages arise from the same problems: war and politics, more than crop failures or drought.
The World Food Program dropped 32 metric tons of food in two villages. The relief came a week after the Sudanese government yielded to international pressure and lifted a 10-month ban on the use of Hercules C-130 transport planes to deliver food.
The agency had been allowed to ship food into the south by truck and aboard smaller Buffalo cargo planes. But heavy rains have made many roads impassable, and the Buffaloes are not built for air-drops, often the only way to deliver supplies to remote and wet areas of a region the size of France.
Use of the C-130 will enable the food program to more than double the amount of aid previously supplied by smaller aircraft to southern Sudan; food deliveries to the region in May and June covered only one-fifth of the assessed need.
Humanitarian aid has frequently been used as a weapon in the 13-year civil war between southern Christian and animist rebels and the northern, Muslim-dominated government of Sudan, which has the largest territory of any African country.
The government in Khartoum has used its veto power to exclude entire needy populations from food deliveries.
The Sudan People's Liberation Army, to a lesser extent, has obstructed the delivery of aid to government-held areas. A splinter group allied with the government, the South Sudan Independence Movement, has barred the delivery of food to pockets of SPLA-controlled land in the southern third of the country.
Operation Lifeline Sudan, an umbrella group of 35 aid agencies, is often caught in the middle - barred from delivering help.
Mario Muor Muor, secretary general of the SPLA's own relief agency, the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association, criticized Operation Lifeline Sudan for failing to press Khartoum harder and earlier for permission to use the C-130.
"In my personal opinion, it would be better for the OLS to leave us alone to die," he said. "The OLS ... is frightened of the Khartoum government."
OLS spokeswoman Sally Burnheim said the United Nations had aggressively pursued clearance for the plane since September, but the government "kept stringing us along."
"They said permission would be granted but they stalled," she said.
Help is desperately needed: Last year's food supplies have been depleted in much of southern Sudan, and the harvest won't begin until late August.
The food shortage is evident in northern Bahr el Ghazal where SPLA supporters are under attack from three sides - Nuers from the east, Arab militias from the north, and Dinkas aligned with the government from the southwest.
With each offensive, more civilians flee, leaving crops untended or unplanted. In some areas, only a quarter of the fields have been planted. Late-arriving rains have left corn and sorghum spindly and sparse.
When southerners aligned with the Sudanese government attacked a village earlier this month, they killed no civilians but burned crops and stole most of the cows and goats.
Already just scraping by, the villagers were left with almost nothing to eat.
"Many people are weak and hungry," said medical worker Angelo Michael Garang. "They come to the clinic because they think they are sick, but they are just hungry and I have no food to give them."
In a sign of their desperation, some Dinkas are slaughtering cows, a rare move given that the animals are both a rich source of milk and a status symbol in their culture.
Many of the hungry also are foraging for wild foods: the bitter pods of tamarind as well as sweet leaves, nuts, roots and berries that are just beginning to ripen.
Dinkas used to drive cattle to a market to trade for grain during hungry times. But many of those markets are now in hostile territory.
"We get robbed on the way to market, and come back with no cows and no grain," tribal leader Awan Gak Ajak said.