Famine, War Threaten Thousands in Ethiopia

By Jay Ross
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 26, 1983

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- Tens of thousands of Ethiopians, mostly women and children, are threatened with starvation in the next few months in a famine that could become one of the most catastrophic in African history.

Despite urgent appeals for international assistance while there is still time to save thousands of lives, the United States, the world's largest source of surplus food, has virtually turned its back on the potential disaster.

About 50 to 100 children are already dying daily, according to Trevor Page, a United Nations World Food Program official who recently toured areas of northern Ethiopia where the government and relief agencies say 3 million people are affected by drought and 1 million are in dire need.

Most relief officials think that the death toll is likely to increase sharply until the next harvest in November unless foreign donors provide emergency food supplies and massive assistance in transportation to bring food to isolated areas.

Some say the toll could approach the 200,000 who died in the same area a decade ago in Africa's worst famine. Unlike that drought, which Emperor Haile Selassie's government tried to hide, this time Ethiopia's military government has provided ample warning and has sought to organize international aid. These efforts can prevent a major disaster if assistance is provided, officials say.

The relief effort, however, has been made much more difficult by wars that have engulfed Eritrea and Tigray provinces and have spilled over into the other two drought-affected provinces in the north, Gondar and Welo.

Several guerrilla groups have been fighting the central government for the independence of Eritrea for 22 years in Africa's longest war. In Tigray, the region hit hardest by drought, the Tigray People's Liberation Front guerrilla organization claims to have captured most of the countryside in its struggle for autonomy. The Ethiopian government denies the claim.

The intermingling of famine and war has made the Ethiopian drought a classic example on both the domestic and international level of the politics of starvation.

With the government and the guerrillas jockeying for international aid, the Tigray Front has charged Ethiopia with diverting food assistance from the needy--charges that Ethiopia and international aid organizations have strongly denied.

Meanwhile, the United States has virtually bowed out of its customary role of providing humanitarian relief to the starving because of Ethiopia's close ties to the Soviet Union.

This series will examine the politics of starvation and its impact on millions of people in a country where hunger is a permanent fact of life, the only difference being whether scores die or tens of thousands, depending on the vicissitudes of nature.

Relief officials interviewed in Washington, London, Rome, Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa say the Reagan administration is putting politics ahead of humanitarian considerations.

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