Less than two years ago in Wad Kowli, an Ethiopian refugee camp in eastern Sudan, I watched a large family collect water, food and their two surviving children for the trek back to their farm in Ethiopia. Now, thousands of Ethiopians are once again leaving their villages for refugee camps in search of food.

My initial reaction to the renewed famine was like that of most Americans: Why is it happening again, and who is to blame? While The Post {editorial, Dec. 28} correctly indicts civil war in Ethiopia as a major source of famine, there are numerous other causes as well. These include a farm policy that stresses inefficient collectives and a lack of sufficient recovery time from the last drought.

But in the present crisis, more important than assigning blame is preventing massive starvation and death from recurring. The Post focused exclusively on the use of food relief by the Ethiopian government and the opposition liberation fronts to further their respective "political fortunes." In doing so, it missed the opportunity to suggest what realistic steps the U.S. government and people can take now to help those in need of food. In addition, The Post's treatment of the war and relief efforts omitted a number of facts that made the editorial misleading and its proposals unviable.

Working to end a war that has gone on for more than 25 years, as The Post advocates, would certainly be laudable. However, the immediate concern of the U.S. government and relief agencies must be to feed the hungry. Two obstacles stand in the way: money and politics.

Money is required to pay for the logistics operations necessary to move hundreds of thousands of tons of food over rugged terrain in a country with a very poor road and transportation system. Without this money, donations of food pile up in ports and cities while people in the countryside die.

While U.S. government officials are optimistic that the current total U.S. contribution of $95.5 million for food, transportation and other expenses will be sufficient to fulfill the U.S. share of the relief effort, this amount pales next to the $465 million the United States contributed during the last Ethiopian famine. If more money is needed for the present crisis, it may not be available, since the budget summit compromise practically precluded supplementary appropriations bills. Private voluntary organizations also fear that without pictures of starving children, contributions will be slow in coming.

Even if money is available, food may still not reach those most in need. Up to three-fourths of the people facing starvation in Tigray and Eritrea, the two most severely affected regions, live in areas controlled by liberation fronts. But during the last famine, the great majority of aid was distributed in government-controlled areas. Western donors must insist that civilians on all sides of the fighting receive help.

Short of stopping the fighting as The Post suggests, the U.S. government can take other measures to ensure that food gets to those who need it. The United States should back proposals by the International Committee of the Red Cross and American relief organizations to establish an "open road" policy for moving food aid to people in areas beyond government control. Such an agreement would allow relief convoys to travel throughout the countryside unobstructed by either government or liberation front forces. Equally important, the U.S. government and other donors must expand the cross-border shipment of food from Sudan into Tigray and Eritrea.

While relief efforts in Ethiopia are certainly subject to manipulation by both the government and resistance forces, they are not a "facade," as The Post describes them. Despite well-publicized difficulties in providing aid amid armed conflict, it has been possible to monitor the distribution of relief supplies. The U.S. Agency for International Development estimates that only 3 percent of food aid was unaccounted for during the last famine relief operation.

The Post's call for a "great-power initiative" to end "the war" is naive at best. The editorial mistakenly describes the warfare in Ethiopia as if it only involved the struggle in Eritrea. In reality there are numerous other resistance movements fighting the Addis Ababa regime. Nor are these wars proxy fights between the superpowers as The Post's editorial seems to suggest. Numerous countries including Saudi Arabia supply the various liberation fronts with arms, but the United States does not. To think that the United States and the Soviet Union could dictate a solution to these numerous combatants belies an ignorance of the diverse history, politics and ethnography of the region.

Peter C. Choharis

The writer is a fellow at the Refugee Policy Group, a nonpartisan research and public policy analysis center.