At dawn there is a light show in the mountains that ring the 45,000 highland peasants who have gathered here in retreat from Ethiopia's famine. Catching the sun, the denuded hills glow orange and magenta. After two or three minutes, the show ends, and the hills are again the dead, brown color of weathered shoes.
It is just after the colors flash in the mountains that stretchers are dispatched in Korem's feeding camp to collect the dead.
The temperature here at Ethiopia's largest famine relief center, perched on a plateau more than 1 1/2 miles above sea level, usually falls below freezing around 4 a.m. It is between then and 6:30, when the colors strike the hills, doctors here say, that most of the day's deaths occur.
Yesterday shortly after dawn, the signal to begin gathering the dead, there were 26 bodies for the stretcher.
On bed number P23 in a corrugated metal shed with a sign that said "Do Not Enter Without Medical Authorization," an attendant tried again and again to snap shut the mouth of a 4-year-old boy. The dead child's mouth would not stay closed. The attendant's forced clicking of the boy's teeth could be heard distinctly in the shed as his father held him and wept.
Outside the morgue, a large green plastic tent set back 30 yards from the hospital shed, workers used long curved knives to fashion shrouds of burlap sacks. Each empty wheat sack read "Food Aid of the European Economic Community for the People of Ethiopia."
Sitting on the ground in clusters around the shroud makers were mothers, wives and sisters who came to mourn. As bodies inside the green tent were wrapped in burlap and borne away on stretchers on the shoulders of camp workers, the women cried and chanted prayers in the main languages of Ethiopia, Amharic and Tigrinya.
The cemetery at Korem, which until two years ago was a village of 8,000 people, has been full for months. So camp workers, in exchange for extra food rations, carry the dead to a cemetery a 90-minute walk away.
Besides tending to the dead, there is other business for the destitute at Korem: waiting for food, waiting for medical care and waiting for shelter.
Five months ago, there were about 15,000 people dependent on the Korem camp. The best guess by Ethiopian officials now is that there are 45,000, with 10,000 additional children in a separate feeding center about a mile from the main camp.
The death rate here has been cut by two-thirds in the past two months, from more than 100 a day to about 35. A measles epidemic seems to have run its course, and, although there are supply problems, there is some food here for anyone willing to wait.
About 107,000 tons of food is due to arrive in Ethiopia in December, and, if there are no major distribution bottlenecks, Korem is likely to have enough food to continue to provide at least 450 calories a day to everyone.
From a distance, the camp, which is about three-quarters of a mile long and one-third of a mile wide, looks orderly. There are about 7,000 people in nine corrugated metal sheds, 8,000 in rows of black plastic tents, 2,000 in green plastic tents, and 13,000 in straw huts.
As one nears the camp, the apparent order disintegrates. Korem smells of human excrement, wood smoke, baking bread and dirty rags. There is one water tap for every 2,800 people, one doctor for every 9,000. Lines for water, food and medical care are hundreds of people long. Peasants shivering in rags begin queuing up shortly after dawn. And on the edges of the camp, there are about 15,000 who are waiting for shelter at Korem.
With all the waiting, what is most striking is the passivity of the adults. They do not cluster around the open air kitchen where women smear wheat flour on circular pans to make kitta, a flat, unleavened bread. Doctors here say camp residents do not attempt to break into food storehouses.
Only the children who are healthy enough to run about the camp seem impatient. Some eat clods of dirt rather than wait in line for food. Others crowd around and pester the doctors, nurses, government workers and journalists who move around the camp.
To keep the children and a few angry elderly people at bay, the camp employs young men armed with long, thin sticks. The stick bearers, who are paid extra food rations, occasionally strike the shoulders and legs of the children who don't keep their distance from doctors and foreign journalists.
Like many of the new arrivals at Korem this week, a young woman, who said her name was Sakarto, arrived after walking all night from Tigray Province in the north.
She came to the camp, with her 6-year-old son at her side and her 6-month-old son in her arms, to find her husband who had left Tigray two weeks earlier for Korem. After arriving here Tuesday morning, she said she was told that her husband was gone, that he had been "resettled" by the government in a town called Asosa, in western Ethiopia.
As the government here explains it, peasants who volunteer for resettlement are being trucked and flown from the drought-scarred highlands to more productive land. The government says 70,000 peasants have been resettled in the past two weeks.
Tuesday afternoon, hours after Sakarto heard about the departure of her husband, her baby died in the camp's hospital ward. And yesterday morning, Sakarto was among the mourners who came at dawn to sit on the ground near the morgue to pray and weep.
The woman, dressed in gray rags but with a gold cross hanging by a string of purple yarn around her neck, said through a translator that she would not try to find her husband. Instead, she said, she wanted to stay at Korem with her remaining son, who appears healthy. She said she wanted only to eat and to wait for a place in a tent.