Drought and fighting have brought a new threat to the north of Ethiopia. Joanna Moorhead reports on the situation in Tigra3, province FAMINE is again stalking Ethiopia. For the third time in five years, the rains have failed in the north of the country and people who planted in hope just a few months ago have seen their crop cruelly blighted. Now there is nothing, or precious little, to harvest.
The drought situation is as bad as it was in 1984, when many thousands starved to death in feeding camps which had no food left to give. Their final agonies were captured for the world by TV crews which arrived too late to save any lives, but in time to film the full horror of mass famine: the result was a massive aid operation mounted throughout the west, and billions of voices united in the resolve that such suffering should never be allowed to happen again.
But 1990, say the experts, could see the scenes repeated. Widespread food shortages are predicted though there is still time to get grain supplies into the country before hunger begins to gnaw early in the new year. • On the part of the west, there is no lack of readiness to respond with massive pledges of food. In 1987 a second major drought posed a similar threat to that of 1984, but it was averted by a near-model response from the west, with shiploads and airlifts of food sent in as soon as the harvest shortfall became clear.
The problem is that to avert the famine in 1990 there can be no airlifts, and any shiploads sent to Ethiopia's ports cannot be successfully sent on to Tigray, the northern province which is worst affected by the current drought . The reason is war, a war which has raged now for over 10 years between the Ethiopian government and the Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front (TP1,12), a rebel force seeking greater self-determination for a region it claims has been denied proper investment and development from the Addis Ababa administration,
The war is not a new factor in the Ethiopian situation, but it has become a more significant one since the last aid operation of 1987. Over the last 18 months, the rebels have won many bloody battles, have now surrounded Dessie, a town just 200 miles from Addis Ababa.
But the government still controls Ethiopia's ports and, more importantly, the essential routes into the rebel-held territory in the north that is bearing the brunt of the crop shortage. Without safe passage and at the moment, there is no safe passage to be had through Ethiopia to the north many thousands, perhaps more than in 1984-85, will die.
What is more, the Ethiopian government controls all its country's airspace, and so far no assurance has been given that planes carrying food would be allowed to fly safely into the rebel-held areas. Without that assurance, no western government will undertake any kind of mercy airlifts.
There has been talk for some weeks now that another famine might be On the cards for northern Ethiopia, but it was only with the return from the area last week of Richard Miller, a London-based projects officer with the Catholic Fund for Overseas Develo'pment (CAFOD) that the west heard independent confirmation of how had the situation looks.
On the arduous journey he saw
plenty of evidence of battles fought in the region. "There were many burnt-nut trucks, antiaircraft guns and tanks along our route, the legacy of the war. It brought home the real waste of the lighting
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A g ray intensified during last year and earlier this year, many western aid agencies withdrew their staff because of the threat to their safety. This meant the closure of many hospitals and schools the only ones open nOW, says Richard Miller, are those run by the Catholic Church.
"Many sisters and priests, including ones from Britain and Ireland, refused to leave despite the war. One nun told me she could not leave her people, whatever happened her place was with them," he says.
1 he work of her arid others like her is crucial, In the town of ldaga Harms, three Irish Little Sisters of the Assumption run the only clinic for 180,000 people, and further south in Alemara group of Mother Teresa' Missionaries of Charity run a hospital which regularly has more than 400 in-patients. The nuns, and those they were caring for, narrowly escaped death a few weeks ago when a major battle was fought on land right beside their convent,
"CAFOD has this week called On the United Nations and western gO‘ernments to put pressure kin. :he Fthiop,ian government to grant this safe passage. We're telling them it's not a matter of Whether the Ethiopian leaders agree to this, it's just got to happen. Otherwise next year is going to sec the needless deaths of many, many thousands in the same appalling conditions we all remember only too well from 1984."
And according to Richard Miller. the Church's role could be absolutely central in helping prevent mass starvation in the months ahead. The Ethiopian government, he says, must guarnatee safe access to Tigray from its ports convoys travelling from Sudan, though hey will continue, will be unable to reach all the people.