Famine Ravages Ethiopia

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Starved for Aid in Africa By Karl Vick Washington Post Foreign Service Wednesday, April 12, 2000; Page A01

GODE, Ethiopia, April 11  A famine is in the making in the arid reaches of Africa's Horn. Children by the hundreds already have perished in southeastern Ethiopia, and aid agencies are mounting a massive effort to prevent the country from once again becoming a synonym for starvation.

The United Nations warns that as many as 16 million people are at risk in 10 countries across East and central Africa, from Burundi to Eritrea on the Red Sea. But the crisis is unfolding most dramatically here in Ethiopia's perennially thirsty Ogaden region, where three years of drought turned wells steadily saltier, then dried them up.

Cattle and sheep died first, impoverishing the nomadic herding population. The final harbinger of disaster arrived in January when camels, who take months to die, stopped lactating. Their milk is the staple of the small children who now lie struggling for breath on the mat on the floor of a makeshift feeding center in Gode.

Two hundred children younger than 5 died here in March, local officials say. In two nearby towns, children have been dying at the rate of a dozen a day since February.

"We know more people are going to die and we just can't do anything about it, quite frankly, because they're just so vulnerable by the time they get to us," said Judith Lewis, head of the U.N.'s World Food Program office in Ethiopia.

"My point to the international community is that we don't have enough," Lewis said. "We've got to have enough food on the high seas and into this country in June. By the end of June, I am out of food."

The incipient famine is but the latest crisis in a country that ranks as nearly the poorest in the world and has been struggling to finance a protracted border war with Eritrea. Ethiopia also has battled forest fires in the south for weeks.

As aid agencies arrive in the remote and sometimes insecure area near the Somalian border, Lewis said the greater fear is that the crisis will repeat itself elsewhere in this nation of 60 million. The April rains that should be renewing parched fields have, once again, failed to do so

A senior U.S. aid official who visited Gode two weeks ago was so alarmed that he immediately ordered an airlift of 40 tons of relief rations. Journalists followed, transmitting images that recalled the Ethiopian famine of 1984-85 that left an estimated 1 million people dead.

Officials say another catastrophe of that magnitude is unlikely, in large part because of the early warning systems put in place since then to monitor weather patterns and agricultural production. In fact, warnings of the current crisis were being sounded almost a year ago. But many countries that pledged donations failed to deliver them, as the rest of the world drew away from sending aid to Ethiopia because of the border war.

"You have a group of donors within the European Union that would like to hold the government's feet to the fire," said a Western diplomat in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.

EU officials denied linking food aid to the war, but after hearing criticism for a slow reaction, they announced plans this week to ship 595,000 tons of food to Ethiopia in the next 12 months.

Gode is a mix of normal life and hideous tableaux. Most of the population of 47,000, almost entirely ethnic Somali, works in small trade. Children play soccer within sight of scores of desiccated cattle, sheep and camel carcasses.

Toward the river, just below the building built as a palace for former emperor Haile Selassie, 2,000 children gather daily at an ad hoc compound to eat high-protein biscuits.

"I came from a very far place," said Keh Ibrahim, 30, who left a village called Orbiso on a 10-day walk in search of relief. "Many people used to live there."

She left the day after her husband died. Two of her eight children began the journey so malnourished that they were strapped, unconscious, to a donkey. After three days she buried her 6-year-old daughter, Rukia, by the side of the road. The next day Abdullahi, 7, was no longer breathing, either.

"My children died after they did not get any food for four days," Ibrahim said. "We are better here, except there is no medical treatment, and we are sick."

The worst of the malnourished are gathered across town in a cluster of cool, shady shelters beside the local hospital.

The bones of a year-old girl named Hiis, who arrived April 4, make a mask of her tiny face, divided by the tube through which a doctor slowly pushes syringes of saline. Emaciated by hunger, her health has been further damaged--probably fatally, the doctor says--because she drank filthy water.

"She should be on an IV," said Abdiaziz M. Ukash, the doctor. But the hospital has nothing to offer.

As humanitarian agencies increase aid, officials say several challenges loom.

Weeks after a shooting incident left one aid worker dead and another severely injured, security in the Ogaden region remains so uncertain that the United Nations does not permit staff to stay overnight. Water is, of course, scarce, and the supply in Gode is so unhealthful that a bacteria count last week scored off the charts.

With a huge shipment from the U.S. Agency for International Development due at neighboring Djibouti later this month, officials say Ethiopia's promise to get the food to the villages will soon be put to the test. Some are openly skeptical that, with the border war threatening to heat up again, heavy trucks will deliver the aid rather than be diverted to the front.

The Ethiopians were having none of it, however. "If the implication is that this government should give up the war because there is a drought in the country, I think that is a complete misunderstanding," said Simone Mechle of the Ethiopian Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission. "We didn't call for the war. We didn't call for the drought. These are two unexpected, unwanted things that we are trying to fight."

) 2000 The Washington Post Company


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), April 12, 2000

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