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Report From Ethiopia

An update on the African nation’s catastrophic famine

Ethiopian woman and childEthiopian woman and child

An Ethiopian woman and her child wait for food supplies in the Red Cross feeding center of Agordat, in a war zone in Northern Ethiopia, on July 24, 1985.

Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty

There is no single simple truth about the famine in Ethiopia. After I returned, having been there on assignment for Rolling Stone, I appeared on a British talk show to discuss the disaster. The host tried to make me say that all the money and food sent by the West was being wasted. By contrast, I met a pillar of the Church of England who did not want to hear any doubts about the way in which the contributions of his flock had been spent. “We must keep on giving,” he said. Later I was called by relief officials who had criticized the Ethiopian government; now they pleaded that I not use the names of their agencies, for fear of upsetting their relationship with the regime. Writing or talking about famine and the world’s response to it is not very easy. My own view is that what is happening in Ethiopia today is catastrophic.

Much has been achieved in the past few months in Ethiopia. The Western public has responded in an extraordinary way to a crisis — in the Sudan, Chad and other countries as well as Ethiopia — of immense proportions. As a result of the broadcast last October of the shocking BBC documentary on the famine, which caused an outcry among viewers around the world, over 700,000 tons of grain have been shipped to Ethiopia. Thanks to Ethiopian and foreign relief workers, thousands and thousands of lives have been saved.

But it is not enough.

About half the people said to be struck by famine or drought are now being helped. As I explained in the last issue of Rolling Stone, thousands more could now be saved if only the food that has already arrived were properly distributed. The worst shortage of relief food is in the north, where rebels in the provinces of Tigre, Eritrea and, to a lesser extent, Wollo have been waging war against the central government. Indeed, one senior Western relief official in Addis Ababa says that it is now clear that the government is using a deliberate policy of starvation there.

The experience in Ethiopia raises important questions about the nature of disaster relief. One problem is the arbitrary, spasmodic nature of the world’s attention. The crisis in that country had been acute long before the BBC film made us aware of it. Another is that disaster relief arrives, perhaps by definition, too late — and it siphons funds away from development aid, which is the only form of assistance that might help prevent disasters from recurring. A third is the inability of the international relief system to respond adequately in such a crisis.

Then there is the frequent tension, if not enmity, between donor and recipient governments. In this case, that means the disaccord between the communist government of Chairman Mengistu Haile Mariam, Moscow’s closest ally in Africa, and the Reagan administration, now the principal donor of emergency relief supplies to Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government almost never publicly acknowledges U.S. aid — and even private American relief is downplayed. When Harry Belafonte and other members of USA for Africa were there recently, they were introduced as Caribbean Americans, and the name of their group was rarely mentioned.

Added to this are the growing problems between Ethiopia’s own relief agency, the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, and the country’s new communist Workers Party, which was formed last fall on the tenth anniversary of the revolution, and which is far less tolerant of foreign aid organizations, their priorities and their backers — in particular, the United States — than the Relief Commission.

No one example better illustrates the complexities of the political situation in Ethiopia today than the story of Ibnat.


On the day I arrived in Addis there was a nasty rumor going around town. Relief workers were saying that over the last weekend government troops had brutally driven 50,000 people out of the shelter at Ibnat, in the northwest province of Gondar, and back into the barren hills. U.S. embassy officials were endorsing the stories.

The shelters are the most visible sign of the famine in Ethiopia. They are the camps on which people converge after life in their villages has become intolerable. The shelters also make good television, and some relief agencies like them, for they provide accessible, visible evidence of their work: “Angels of mercy from Michigan . . . Manchester . . . Marseille. . . .”

Nonetheless, the Relief Commission, which often functions very well, is reluctant to encourage the growth of the shelter populations because they turn farmers into indigents totally dependent on handouts. This is reasonable, save for the fact that most people who arrive at the shelters are already indigent. Before coming in desperation, they will have eaten everything, including the seed for next year’s planting. Then they will have tried selling their labor; then their jewelry; then their animals; then, for fodder, the thatch from their houses; then finally, for firewood, the central wooden pillar of their houses.

These people have literally nothing to go back to, and there are few incentives the government can offer. Thus force has been used, often by order of the Workers Party. The stories of aid workers about the forced expulsion of refugees at Ibnat as well as the power struggle between the Relief Commission and the Workers Party appeared in The Washington Post on May 1st in an article by reporter Blaine Harden. Reaction from the West was swift. The State Department at once issued a harsh denunciation of the Ethiopian regime, demanding that it punish all those responsible.

From New York, Javier Perez de Cuellar, the secretary general of the United Nations, called Kurt Jansson, the UN’s principal representative in Addis, and asked that he conduct an investigation. The next day Jansson, the BBC man in Addis and I helicoptered to Ibnat with Ethiopian government officials, including Major Dawit Wolde Giorgis, the head of the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission.

As we flew north, many of the villages on the brown earth below seemed deserted. In places, the first rains had brought some grass, but it looked almost translucent, as fragile as dew upon the earth. Gondar province is close to the barren battlefields of Tigre, and to Wollo, one of the provinces most affected by drought and civil strife. Gondar is also parched. At the beginning of 1985 the shelter at Ibnat grew from about 2,000 to over 55,000 as people fled war and starvation. They said that in the embattled provinces the government was just not distributing food.

The U.S. embassy began to take a close interest in Ibnat. Large quantities of food were sent there. Much of it was in the hands of World Vision, one of those rich and powerful charities that often act as clients of the U.S. government. Officials from Washington visited; some even say that they “adopted” the camp, to make it a showplace of U.S. aid.

By the middle of April the embassy had plans to “upgrade” Ibnat. It may sound bizarre, but Abie Nathan, a wealthy Israeli philanthropist, was planning to erect a refugee city there for 20,000 people, complete with thousands of tents labeled From Jerusalem With Love. Perhaps the Nathan plan was the last straw for Workers Party officials. At the end of April came the shocking news of the mass expulsion. One relief official declared angrily, “All of a sudden someone killed our baby. We were really down.”

When we landed at the town of Gondar en route to Ibnat, we were met by local Ethiopian relief officials and representatives of the Workers Party. In answer to worried questions from Jansson, they said that in recent months Ibnat had grown far too large and that it was government policy to encourage people to return to their land and to plant crops now that the rains had begun. Otherwise, they would be destitute camp followers for another year. Major Dawit, who still seemed to believe — or at least to hope — that the evacuation of the camp had been voluntary, interjected, “We are going to do this with other shelters.”

The officials said that the people at Ibnat had been offered the choice of returning home or being included in the government’s controversial resettlement program, which critics say is an attempt to depopulate the north and thus weaken resistance to the regime. It is being carried out by the Workers Party.

Only about 4,500 refugees at Ibnat, we were told, accepted resettlement. The rest had been evacuated in an orderly manner over several weeks — not forced out at gunpoint as The Washington Post had reported. The officials said that everyone had been given rations and that peasants’ associations in the hills had been sent seed to give to the returning villagers. It all sounded remarkably well organized.

Among the officials at the airport was Major Melaku Tafara, a thin young man, silent and unsmiling, who is the Gondar provincial party secretary. One of the relief officials whispered, “He’s the most ruthless bastard I know. Look at his eyes.” Comrade Melaku was supposed to have ordered the beating up of some Ethiopians working for the U.S. embassy a few weeks earlier. He joined us for the short flight to Ibnat. There the official story fell apart.

From the air we saw patches where straw huts had been burned, just outside the main shelter area. We landed close by the permanent shelter, which is a series of corrugated-tin buildings and tents, situated under a bare brown mountain. There were still several thousand people in the shelter, all dressed in the dust-colored rags that clothe starvation in Ethiopia.

On the ground we met an Irish aid worker, Jim Kinsella, from the agency CONCERN. He said at once that the official version of an orderly, planned return home was rubbish and that indeed everyone had been forced out by troops, their huts burned behind them. And that it was all done on the orders of Comrade Melaku.

American workers from World Vision had been warned by superiors not to talk to us, for fear of reprisals against their organization. Unusually, they disobeyed. They said that the camp water was cut off early on Sunday morning and that people were told to leave at once. Two pregnant women who tried to fetch water from the stream were chased by soldiers and aborted their babies. Altogether, about nineteen people died. Adults were given fifteen kilos of wheat, but few had water with which to cook it. Nurse Danny Hawley of World Vision said, “The patients said they had left nothing and would not return to nothing. . . . It was their belief, expressed to us, that they would die on the way.”

By now it was clear that the Washington Post story of a ruthless expulsion had been correct. It was also clear that Relief Commissioner Dawit had not known about it; the operation had been carried out by the party. What was unclear was whether the local party had taken the initiative or had received orders from the central government. When we flew back to Addis, Major Dawit acknowledged that mistakes had been made. A few days later Chairman Mengistu — who rules Ethiopia with much the same authority as his predecessor, Haile Selassie, the emperor he deposed — did something unprecedented. He agreed with Jansson that what had happened was wrong and that those responsible would be dealt with. The U.S. embassy was amazed.

Since then most of the people expelled from Ibnat have drifted back from the nearby hills — and have been allowed to stay. Indeed, thousands more have come out of the countryside, having exhausted the barest possibilities of life at home. But now there are further moves by the government to empty the camp. In theory, this makes sense, particularly now that some rain has come and seed can be planted. The problem is that so many people have literally nothing to go back to, and not much of the international aid can be used for so-called development.

This is not to suggest that emergency food is being distributed only in the shelters. Many agencies, including Ethiopia’s own Relief Commission, have successful programs that give monthly rations of food to people who walk from their homes and then return. And a small amount of food is being shipped by air to villages in the mountains north of Addis. The cost-effectiveness of this operation is sometimes questioned. It is, however, popular with some aid officials and some journalists — because it offers a day trip to the famine. I went on one such daily expedition with a group of visiting UN officials from Rome.


The air drop was a joint operation of the Polish and British governments. Poland has supplied the relief effort with a helicopter squadron, and the Royal Air Force has provided a couple of Hercules cargo planes. The men from Rome and I rode on the Polish helicopter, along with two RAF men, who would call in the two planes to the drop zone after we were on the ground, and a young medical team from the French group Doctors Without Borders.

The Polish pilot flew north, very low over the stunning gorges and cataracts, eventually landing on a small, grassy plain, 200 yards wide and about a mile long, between two hills. This was not an area of serious drought, but there were now food shortages: the purpose of the drop was to prevent migration to the shelters.

A smiling young man from the local office of the Relief Commission and another from the Ministry of Defense greeted us. The RAF men laid a couple of large plastic markers on the grass and set up their radio on the hillside to call in the transport planes. These flew only about fifty feet over the ground, dropping clutches of bags, which tumbled along the grass, some of them bursting in clouds of grain and dust.

Hundreds of farmers gathered to watch; they sat on the hillside wearing woolly hats, ragged jackets and shorts. Some carried sticks or old umbrellas. Many others had little twigs with which to sweep up every grain from the burst bags.

The men from Rome began to fire questions at the local relief official. He answered them all very patiently and politely.

How many people are in need of food?

“Seventy thousand out of a population of 200,000.”

What are the main crops?

“Sorghum and teff.”

When did the problem start?

“This year.”

Do you have seed?

“Not this year — the farmers have eaten it all.”

A heavyset German doctor from the World Health Organization, who had accompanied us, said he wanted to talk to some farmers. A few gathered round, apprehensively; I suppose many of them had never seen foreigners. The doctor asked if they knew where the food came from.

“We don’t know, but we think it’s from the government.”

Do they know where the planes are from?


When the doctor told the farmers the planes were English and the helicopter Polish and the grain American, they looked uncertain — where or what were English or Polish or American?

Do they know how the grain will be distributed?

“By the peasants’ association.”

Do they think it is being distributed fairly?

“They will give to those who need it.”

How long will it last?

“They don’t know.”

Do you have seeds

“We don’t have. Last year we had seeds but no rain. Now we have sold sheep and goats to buy food.”

Gradually, it became clear that at best the airlift might feed only about twenty-five percent of those said to be in need here — and only for a month at that. The men from Rome thought it not worthwhile. They would have been right if trucks had been used efficiently to bring food to such places. But since that was out of the question, the flights did at least enable a few thousand people to stay out of the shelters. Furthermore, the awful truth is that the aid program across the whole of Ethiopia probably reaches regularly only about thirty percent of those who need it.

We rode into the village, past patches of earth strewn with small boulders — these were the fields. In the primitive little clinic, there was a local medical assistant who had virtually no drugs or equipment. He said that the main diseases in the village were typhus, malaria, scabies, measles, impetigo and eye problems linked to vitamin-A deficiency. Around the clinic were hundreds of people waiting to show their children to the French medical team. One young doctor came out to glance at the children. She marked with a felt-tip pen the brows of those she would examine. She agreed that there was not much she could do for them in such a short visit.

The townspeople were, if anything, more wretched than the farmers. With no farming, there was no trade in the town. There was a bar with no bottles, a tailor shop with no customers, and in the market there was almost nothing for sale except small bundles of firewood. One woman was trying to sell a little dish of about a hundred grains of wheat that she had picked up one by one from the drop zone.

Back at the drop zone it was midday. The Hercules made another pass, but this time sacks did not tumble out. Down on a small parachute floated the ground crew’s lunch: the RAF men sat on the hillside eating sandwiches, drinking hot coffee and munching large bars of Toblerone chocolate; behind them the hundreds of hungry farmers watched silently, patiently.

A young man in a bright-orange pullover came up to me. He said that his name was Daniel and that he was the local teacher. The government had built a fine new school, but attendance had been halved by sickness and starvation. He wanted to know who we were and what we were doing here.

The German doctor gave a long speech describing the purpose of their mission on behalf of the United Nations, “to decide whether this is all efficient and done in the best possible way.”

We walked across the drop zone to a little hamlet and visited the mud-and-wattle house of a middle-aged woman. The mud beds had animal skins and rags on them, but there was little else in the hut save a few jars and a cooking pot. The woman showed us her grain store; it was virtually empty.

She had swept up grain on the drop zone yesterday, and she would do so again today. Where does that grain come from? asked the doctor. “Foreign countries,” she said. But which? he asked. She did not know, and he appeared exasperated.

“What will you do if the government does not bring seed this year?” he asked.

“We will die,” Daniel translated.

I walked back across the field with Daniel. “You are from the United Nations?” he asked. “I have never heard of that. What is the United Nations?” While I was trying to answer his question, a local party official shouted at Daniel. He looked worried and went over to the man, who clearly cursed him for talking to me. Daniel walked back to the village without saying another word to me.

Soon the last drop was made, and the international community waved goodbye and took off for Addis, as the farmers invaded the field to pick up the unbroken bags and to sweep up the scattered grain. At Addis airport the Poles offered us all vodka, and then it was back into the city for hot baths and a full meal. I wondered what the farmers, sweeping up the grain with their twigs, thought of the well-fed white people who had come from God knows where, asked meaningless questions and given nothing in return.


At the end of my last article, I suggested some of the steps that might enable the relief operation in Ethiopia to deal with the present crisis. There is not much progress to report. The government has not allowed any closer monitoring of the distribution process. There is still inadequate coordination of the relief supplies arriving. Throughout recent months, for example, there has been a terrible shortage of food in the rebellious north. At least some food is still being distributed to soldiers, to militiamen, to army veterans, to the resettled people in the southwest and even, it is reported, in the markets of Addis and other towns.

The government has still not given the UN or any other agency, like the Red Cross, direct access to the war zones of Tigre and Eritrea, where conditions are deteriorating. Those people who do make it to the feeding centers in the government-held towns are in worse condition than when I last wrote — particularly the children.

The donors have responded to the UN’s appeal for $50 million for tires and spare parts for trucks: $42 million has been pledged and will eventually get scores of trucks back on the roads. In the meantime, the UN has contracted with a Kenyan firm for fifty-five commercial trucks to be sent north to Ethiopia. Fifty-five, when the need is for hundreds. Catholic Relief Services is bringing in a hundred more trucks from Kenya. The Ethiopian government has not raised the number of military trucks provided for the relief effort. Off-take from the main port at Assab is still hovering around 3,000 tons a day, when 5,000 tons a day is needed. And food is disappearing on the road between Assab and the warehouses inland.

Last December the UN plan was to distribute 119,000 tons of food every month in Ethiopia. By May an average of only 40,000 tons a month was being distributed. Now, says Kurt Jansson, it is up to 72,000 tons, but this is still less than two-thirds of the target figure. And these summer months, when the last harvest is exhausted and the next is yet to come, are always the worst of all.

What seems most astonishing about all of this is that there has been so little outcry. Privately, aid officials curse the restrictions on their work. Publicly, they are reticent, for fear that protest would upset their delicate relationship with the regime. Almost the only foreign agency to make a real fuss has been the International Committee of the Red Cross. Many other agencies are frightened of being publicly critical because they have long-term development projects to protect as well as relief work. The United Nations has not taken the lead in protesting. One problem is that although Kurt Jansson has moral authority in Addis, he has no real power over the various UN agencies or the voluntary organizations, none of which ever want to surrender their independence

One senior relief official in Addis thinks there has been a “conspiracy of silence.” He includes in it not only many relief officials but also many Western ambassadors, anxious both to avoid upsetting their publics back home and to maintain some relationship with the regime, so as to offset Soviet influence.

Protest cannot come from the millions still starving in Ethiopia, or in the Sudan, or Chad, or Mali. Indeed, one of the causes of their suffering is that the African rural poor are really powerless — except when they die in large enough numbers to stir transient Western compassion. (Some Western development experts contrast the plight of starving Africa with India. In India there are serious food shortages, but there has not been a famine since 1943. Why? Because peasants there do have some power — India is a democracy. At the first sign of famine, newspapers and local politicians raise hell and get supplies rushed into the area. No such local remedies are at hand in a dictatorship like Ethiopia.)

Who is left to protest? Perhaps only the mass of people whose anger pushed governments into action last October. A new outcry is needed now. Not just for Ethiopia but for the Sudan and other countries as well. In the Sudan the logistics are equally bad. Perhaps such protest could be led or at least articulated by those who have been at the forefront of USA for Africa and Band Aid.


When Harry Belafonte and other members of USA for Africa were in Ethiopia recently, they were astounded at the scale and variety of the problems. Ken Kragen, the manager and producer of the project, said at the end of their trip through Ethiopia, Tanzania and the Sudan, “What we’ve learned is that it’s not just a question of sending more money or more food.”

That’s right, on at least two levels. Development aid will be desperately needed when the present emergency is overcome. That means some very complicated programs to secure reforestation and arrest erosion, but also some very simple ones. For example, over ninety percent of the wood used in Africa goes to cooking. An enormous saving in trees and in toil for peasants — usually the women — looking further and further afield for wood could be made by the use of simple fuel-efficient stoves. Some USA for Africa and Band Aid money could be well spent on research and development, in consultation with peasants, on such an item. Without stopping deforestation, soil erosion can never be halted.

To reach any long-term solution, a way must be found to enfranchise Africa’s rural poor, both politically and economically. It’s not at all clear whether many African governments will welcome this — the peasantry has always been a low priority for urban politicians. Success would also lessen the power of international organizations. Some radical proposals have recently been made in a report for the Independent Commission on Humanitarian Issues, whose members include Robert McNamara. The report points out that development aid has been an ignominious failure in Africa and suggests that the best course might be direct extension of credit to farmers. No two agricultural communities are the same, and so, “No top-down agricultural theories will work. . . . Credit will give the community the dominant say over how financial resources are used.” The men from Rome will not dictate. Nor will the men from Addis.

Obviously, such schemes face immense problems. The report suggests that credit could be channeled through local groups that understand local conditions and power structures. Credit “gives the borrower a power over its use which as a beneficiary of free aid he, or she, never has.” The report proposes that all those organizations with African-aid programs allocate a fixed proportion of their funds to rural credit schemes. This is another proposal which USA for Africa and Band Aid would do well to consider.

Other funds could be used to help the hundreds of thousands of people in Ibnat and other shelters to return home. Some rains have come now: if people were given seed, tools, cooking utensils — and money — many of them could go home and plant. But not all; the fighting makes return to Tigre, Eritrea and Wollo impossible for tens of thousands. Right now, at the very least, some way must be found of getting convoys into the war zones. The United Nations should be vociferously demanding that right from the Ethiopian government, either for itself or for the International Committee of the Red Cross, whose mandate it is to work on both sides of the battle lines. USA for Africa and Band Aid should be pushing for that.

Now is the worst time of the year for the hungry in Ethiopia. Whatever is left of the last harvest is exhausted, and the next one is not yet ready to be reaped. Those terrible images we saw on our televisions last year were stumbling out of these barren weeks. The awful possibility is that despite all that has happened, we shall soon see the same again, one year later.

In This Article: Coverwall, Ethiopia


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