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Report From Ethiopia

While food rots on the docks, thousands are starving

Tigrean, refugee, children, Wad Cheife, refugee, camp, Ethiopia

Tigrean refugee children in the Wad Cheife refugee camp on the Ethiopian border in February of 1985.


Mothers, grandmothers and a few fathers, all dressed in rags the color of dust, sit beneath a corrugated-iron roof, feeding their children porridge from plastic beakers. They are starving, victims not of famine but of logistics — and they are very, very lucky. For the time being, that is.

They are in a feeding program at the Red Cross center in Makale, Ethiopia. Outside the compound, in the daytime dust and the cold nights, are thousands of starving children who need food.

The Red Cross center is one of several in Makale, capital of Tigre, a northern province that, like Eritrea, is at war with the central government of Ethiopia. The center has grown every month since December — to meet increasing demand. Today it handles 1500 children at a time. Six months ago most of the children brought here were seventy percent of their normal weight for height. Now many are under sixty percent. In other words, these children are worse off than those who arrived six months ago. In April a record 109 of the 1500 children died.

Many of the children have had half the hair on their heads shaved. Their mothers have done this as a reminder to God that he has already taken several of their children, and so perhaps could spare this one. Other mothers have given their sons girls’ names and their daughters boys’ names, in the hope that God will not notice them as he looks for children to take.

Whatever this says about the nature of God in Ethiopia, the precaution is understandable — but it is scandalous that it is necessary right now. There are masses of food in Ethiopia — half a million tons. A veritable mountain of grain has been shipped since December, and another is on the way. But it is not in the shelters in Makale. It sits in warehouses, miles away, or has been distributed elsewhere.

One of the reasons for this catastrophic state of affairs is that there are not enough trucks. Some relief officials blame the donor countries for not being willing to provide trucks to move the grain they have given. Others blame the government and suggest famine relief has become a low priority for the ruling Marxists. Either way it is a new disaster for Ethiopia, and for the international community that has tried to help it.

SINGERS CAN MAKE RECORDS — “WE ARE THE WORLD” has so far raised about $45 million — schoolchildren can give away their toys; congregations can organize sales; communities can badger their representatives; newspapers can launch appeals; governments can finally give grain; the United Nations can charter ships. Yet in a famine this is as a tinkling cymbal — unless there is a good way to take the food from the ports to the victims. It is so basic as to be mundane, but in disaster relief all the good will in the world can go to hell in a hand basket if the logistics don’t work. In Ethiopia at the best of times the logistics are difficult. It is a huge country — about the same size as Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma combined. It is also a transportation nightmare.

Most of the victims of drought, war and famine live north of Addis Ababa, the capital. When you fly there in one of the Hercules aircraft provided by the Red Cross, the Royal Air Force or the Luftwaffe for the movement of grain, you pass first over a high farming plain. Below are villages of small round huts gathered inside low stone walls, clumps of trees, grazing cattle. Suddenly, a village seems to fall away — just disappear over the edge of a rock escarpment plunging several thousand feet. Now you are flying over a world of gorges, cliffs, bluffs, stone valleys, cataracts. Far below is a dried-out riverbed, and on the steep mountainsides tiny hamlets perched on carved terraces. All at once the earth rushes sharply up, the fields close enough to touch, and the aircraft crosses another small plain. In profile the countryside must look like a very bizarre cardiogram — jagged highs and lows, a few plateaus in between.

Some of the villages can be reached by road, but not all, and less than half of Ethiopia’s roads are paved. Farther north, in the province of Tigre, and Eritrea beyond, the mountains become less dramatic, but communities are just as distant from one another and from the main towns. In fact, most Ethiopians live more than ten miles from the nearest road, and a walk of several days for supplies would not be unusual. This explains why the trucks to transport food are as essential as the food itself. The facts speak for themselves.

AT THE END OF LAST YEAR TELEVISION suddenly awoke the Western public to the horrifying magnitude of the African famine — far too late to save many thousands. Under unprecedented public pressure — they would not have done it otherwise — Western governments agreed to ship vast quantities of food to Ethiopia. The UN plan was for 1.3 million tons to feed nearly 8 million people in 1985. So far I million tons have been pledged and 500,000 tons have actually arrived. (The Soviet Union, Ethiopia’s principal ally, says it gave 10,000 tons of grain in 1984.)

By any standards this is a remarkable achievement. But the problem of moving the food inland remains. Food can reach Ethiopia only through its two seaports, Assab and Massawa on the Red Sea, or from the port in neighboring Djibouti. From Djibouti there is a railroad to Addis — but there are not enough boxcars. From Massawa and Assab some food is trucked or flown to the people who need it (the flights are essential but expensive, and the total quantities are small).

The distribution has been far too slow. By May much more food was arriving in the ports than was leaving. Almost half of what had arrived — 200,000 tons — was still in storage, while children were starving in Makale. Another 60,000 tons were waiting on board ships standing off the ports. Hundreds of thousands more tons were on the high seas. At Assab the crisis was self-evident. Hundreds of sacks of grain were stored in the open, many of them broken open. Rainstorms in May damaged or destroyed at least 7000 tons.

This was all predicted. The man in charge of the UN relief operation is Kurt Jansson, a calm, experienced Finn, who has worked in Cambodia and is now the UN Assistant Secretary General for Emergency Operations in Ethiopia. Last December he recommended that the donors buy 300 long-haul (twenty-two-ton) and 400 short-haul (six- to ten-ton) trucks and provide spare parts for 400 Ethiopian trucks. It was not done.

By this April, according to Jansson’s office, the relief effort had less than half the trucks it needed. Only seventy trucks — most undersized — were hauling grain out of Assab daily. By May the West Germans had sent 165 Mercedes trucks and the Italians had promised 100 tractor-trailers. (The first 50 tractors arrived without trailers, and thus were useless.) Jansson then made another appeal to the donors for about $49 million worth of trucks and spare parts. So far a little more than $8 million has been pledged.

Even though it is ridiculous for donors to expect a third-world government to be suddenly able to move huge and unexpected amounts of extra supplies without extra transportation, the poor response to the requests for trucks is not hard to understand. Western governments find it much easier to give large quantities of surplus grain, for which they have no use, than to actually pay hard cash for trucks. But in response to this criticism, diplomats of donor nations and some relief officials complain that there are masses of trucks in Ethiopia and the government just won’t release them for famine relief.

There is truth in this, too. Many of Ethiopia’s trucks are being used in the commercial economy or have been diverted to the government’s wars in Tigre and Eritrea. More still have been taken for its controversial program for the resettlement of people from the north to the south.

THE WORLD’S IMAGES OF ETHIOPIA ARE NOW almost only of famine. In Addis, by contrast, it is sometimes hard to believe there is any famine at all. Eight million Ethiopians may be affected by the disaster, but there are another 34 million who are living relatively ordinary lives. Their economy has to be kept going. In Addis there is no shortage of food — because the government needs to protect its power base. There are fewer beggars than in many other capitals. Markets are full. Restaurants and the Hilton are doing a splendid trade from aid officials and journalists. Hilton box lunches are much in demand by foreigners for day trips to the famine areas. Filling markets and box lunches takes trucks.

As does resettlement. Last fall, after lavish celebrations of the tenth anniversary of the revolution, a new communist Workers Party was formally announced. Since then it has become increasingly powerful in government and now directs much of the famine relief. In November the party revealed a plan to move people from the drought-ridden north to the more fertile areas in the south and west. That sounds reasonable enough, but the idea was to move well over a million people in 1985. Think of the scale of such an operation — more than 80,000 people a month.

By May about 400,000 people had already been moved. Many went voluntarily to the promise of a better future, but many more, mostly able-bodied men, were torn from their screaming families — in order to fill local party resettlement quotas. They were moved in hundreds of trucks and buses and in unpressurized Soviet cargo planes. Now they have to be supplied, usually over much greater distances than before.

A resettlement program would have made sense if executed carefully and slowly, but it is absurd to tie up so much transportation rushing people to distant lands in the middle of a famine when there is a shortage of trucks to carry food. One of the program’s purposes is not, however, humanitarian but blatantly political: to weaken the power of the rebels in the north.

In Makale, capital of Tigre, I watched ammunition being unloaded from a military plane onto a military truck and then onto one of the Soviet helicopter gunships based there. The helicopter took off and circled low over the hills, hunting for rebel positions. There is no shortage of transportation for the military as it pursues its brutal war against the Tigrean and Eritrean liberation fronts. The government has rejected a request that would allow UN food convoys into the no man’s land that makes up most of the two provinces. It is from there that many of the children with half-shaved heads are being brought to Makale — only to find there is not enough food in the cities of tents that are called shelters. Thousands more have trekked to the Sudan.

Kurt Jansson has spent considerable energy trying to persuade the government to make military trucks available to the relief effort. Promises were made and broken. Then in May the country’s leader, Chairman Mengistu Haile Mariam, flew to see the chaos at Assab and ordered the military in. Distribution has since improved to about 3000 tons a day. Even so, given the amount that is due to arrive by ship over the summer, stocks at Assab are unlikely to fall dramatically. Jansson has been warning that he might have to ask donors to delay shipments. When people are starving, it is hard to imagine such a thing.

CRITICS ARE STARTING TO ASK WHY some of the food has not been going to the starving. Back in December the UN planned to distribute up to 119,000 tons of food a month for the 7 to 8 million people the government said were at risk. Less than half of that has actually been distributed every month. The government claims that over 5 million people have been given rations; most of the foreign relief agencies think that is nonsense. No one actually knows the true figure.

Roughly half the food going to Ethiopia is in the name of the government’s Relief and Rehabilitation Commission; the rest is handled by nongovernment agencies like the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Catholic Relief Services. (Almost all the U.S. government food is given to such agencies.) Food distribution by the nongovernment groups appears effective, in particular that of the Red Cross, which has organized its own transportation. In its program 518,000 people are each receiving 15 kilos of food a month (7.5 kilos for children). In view of the current crisis, ICRC may, rather reluctantly, enlarge its program to embrace 1 million people.

Much of the work done by the government’s relief commission is excellent, but there seems little doubt that a good deal of the food intended for its shelters or for distribution to impoverished farmers has gone elsewhere. Some relief officials in Addis claim that thousands of tons have gone astray every month. Kurt Jansson has denied that. In Makale, I spoke to some people in government shelters who had received a full ration of fifteen kilos of food a month; others had received far less. Camped outside the shelter were thousands of people stumbling around in rags or lying under blankets of flies. Many wore plastic bracelets that they believed would protect them against cholera, which, although denied by the government, was beginning to rage in Makale. They had received no food at all.

Where has the rest of the food gone? Some has gone to resettlement areas. (The new “settlers” are also famine victims desperately in need of food.) Other food is probably being stored against the day when foreign aid ceases. A lot of food has been given away to veterans of the Ethiopian army and to militiamen, particularly in Tigre, and to townspeople in those Eritrean cities that the government controls — to detract from the appeal of Eritrean nationalism. The bottom line is that not enough food has been given to the starving.

NOW SOME OF THE MONEY FROM “WE ARE THE WORLD” is beginning to move to Ethiopia. Good — it is needed. Much of it is being spent through established relief agencies. That is sensible. It is to be used on development projects as well as straight relief. That, too, is wise. Emergency relief can only be a palliative; no long-term solution to the Ethiopian crisis will be possible without development aid. Until recently the U.S. government, citing its disputes with the government, had refused to allow any of its aid to be used for development.

At the same time, however, the donors — governments, private agencies, singers, record buyers — ought to be making more demands, to see that more food is distributed and that it is given to those who need it. Until now there have been surprisingly few complaints by the donor nations. In February the Director for Operational Activities of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Jean-Pierre Hocké, warned the donors, “Either you just want to send a lot of food to the country, or you really want to help the starving. In the second case, what is happening is unacceptable.” Until now it has been accepted.

Based on my observations, this is what is required: First, far better monitoring of the distribution process. Second, more trucks on a long-term basis from the government, to be followed by more trucks from the donors. Third, proper access for UN convoys to the starving civilians in Eritrea and Tigre. Fourth, a consensus on the number of victims who need full rations. (Some aid officials in Addis consider the government’s total, now at 10 million, an exaggeration. Perhaps 10 million have been affected in one way or another, but only about 4 million are totally dependent on outside aid. Aid officials argue that to concentrate on these 4 million would save many more lives.) Fifth, concerted protest when food goes astray and the starving are left unfed.

Unless such steps are taken by a united front of donors, agencies and the government, people who could easily be saved now will continue to die. What sort of humanitarianism is that?

Much has already been achieved, thousands of lives have been saved. Yet, since enough food is now in the country to save many more, the present situation is intolerable. The truth at its starkest is, the Ethiopian politburo is using aid to free its own resources to prolong its wars — and thus to prolong some of the causes of the famine. This is the new disaster. Without change, mothers will shave their children’s heads in vain.


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