POST CORRESPONDENT Blaine Harden's latest report from Ethiopia makes plain that behind a facade of true relief efforts by the government and its regional challengers in Eritrea and Tigray, a deadly civil war continues to be waged. The food scene itself is a principal arena of the struggle, with each combatant using food deprivation and food relief by turn to advance its political fortunes. In a terrible new twist, Eritrean rebels have begun blocking the transit of international relief to their own desperately hungry people for the reason, it seems, that the Ethiopian government has sanctioned the convoys.

The spectacle of rebels halting food and shooting up trucks has produced a wave of outrage and revulsion and has prompted the rebels to mend their words, if not their ways. This is of a piece with the Ethiopian government's response to earlier criticism of its policies that have the similar effect of harming -- in many instances sentencing to death by starvation -- the very people that foreign relief providers intended to succor. That is, the avowedly Marxist government moderated some of its policies, or at least announced that it was moderating some of its policies, while underneath these reassuring words the brutal conflict went on.

Is there not an alternative to this extended exercise in death and deception? As things go now, the United States, which is the principal food donor, and other donors are called upon every year or two to pitch in to save millions of lives. They do so, but their humanitarianism ends up making them the tools of the combatants. It is especially objectionable that the West provides the government in Addis Ababa food while Moscow's exports center on ideology and arms. Yet to stop delivering food is morally unthinkable, even though the local leaders are using their people, as well as the international donors, for their own ends.

Perhaps this unhappy corner of Africa, which is of political interest but which is not strategically vital to anyone, is open to a great-power initiative drawing on the sense of limited mutual interest that the United States and the Soviet Union are now trying to cultivate. For such an effort to work, it would have to go beyond drawing up rules for relief and engage the political basics. That means confronting the fact that Eritrea is not merely a troublesome province but a former (Italian) colony that was involuntarily federated into Ethiopia 25 years ago, and then was swallowed, and that has fought for independence ever since -- first against a leader who leaned to Washington and now against one who leans to Moscow. This is what the war is about, and the relief question cannot be treated effectively without taking this political issue into account.