This country's largest famine relief camp, with a population of 60,000 people -- many sick and weakened by malnutrition -- was burned and evacuated by force during the past three days, according to two senior western relief officials who visited the camp today.
These officials said that, beginning Sunday and ending today, Ethiopian Army troops herded more than 50,000 famine victims -- including several thousand children under 5 years of age -- out of Ibnet, a camp located in Ethiopia's central highlands, and then burned the grass huts in which the people had been living.
The camp, which on Saturday had been a general feeding, child nutrition and medical center run by four private relief agencies and the Ethiopian government, was by today a blackened plain, where a few stray cows wandered amid mounds of ashes and shards of broken pottery, according to the officials who flew to Ibnet this morning.
The officials said that from an airplane they saw thousands of people walking from Ibnet in long lines that snaked along dirt roads and dried river valleys. About one-third of them reportedly are heading east, through some of Ethiopia's roughest mountain terrain, to Welo and Tigray, the regions hit hardest last year by drought. Those headed for Welo must walk three to six days; for Tigray, up to 14 days.
"These people are fairly undernourished and a lot of them were not fit to undertake this journey. A number of them will certainly die," said one of the relief officials.
According to both officials, who said they talked with representatives of the Ethiopian government and private relief workers at the camp, the evacuation was ordered by leaders of the Workers' Party of Ethiopia, who under Ethiopia's Marxist system govern the Gondar region where Ibnet is located.
Beside the approximately 52,500 people who were sent away from Ibnet on foot, the relief officials said another 4,500 were flown west over the past four days in Soviet transport helicopters to resettlement areas in the fertile western end of Gondar near the Sudanese border. These people had volunteered for resettlement, the officials said.
"For the others, there was no opposition to the Army. They are a very incredibly docile people," one of the relief officials said.
The party's reason for clearing out the camp, the relief officials said they were told, was to allow the residents to take advantage of recent rains by returning to their homes and beginning to farm. Party officials reportedly said that evacuation of the camp would end overcrowding that could spread disease and that those leaving Ibnet were strong and able-bodied. The party officials also reportedly said that the evacuees had been given enough grain for their trip home and that they would find seed and farm implements in their own region.
Nurses working for Concern, an Irish relief organization that fed and cared for children of Ibnet, disputed the party's account, the officials said. They said the nurses reported that hundreds of "very sick children" disappeared between Sunday and today. The nurses counted 17 bodies yesterday along the road leading east from the camp, one relief official said.
Specialists on the Ethiopian famine here in Addis Ababa, said that Welo region, the destination of many of the evacuees, remained an inhospitable area with little seed, limited supplies of farm instruments and almost no food -- except in feeding centers like the camp the walkers were forced to leave.
"In one sense, the decision to move people out of the camp is a sound one. It is time to return some people to their homes. The crowding at Ibnet made people vulnerable to disease," one official said last night. "Where I fault them is the lack of preparation, the lack of humanity. To come in and move so many people so fast is pretty ruthless."
Most relief officials interviewed for this story, who declined to be named for fear of being expelled from Ethiopia, have made frequent visits to Ibnet in the past four months, as the camp has swelled from 2,000 residents in January to 60,000 by the end of last week. It is only in the past month that Ibnet has become the largest famine-relief camp in Ethiopia.
Repeated efforts today to contact a spokesman for the government's Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, which oversees famine relief here, were unsuccessful.
The following account of the evacuation of Ibnet is based on separate interviews with the two officials who flew to the camp and spent the day there interviewing relief workers and government officials.
The decision of the Workers' Party was announced on Saturday at 3 p.m.
Relief workers were called together from Concern, World Vision, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the government's Relief and Rehabilitation Commission. Party officials announced they were going to close the camp, and that from Saturday no one in the camp from Welo or Tigray was to receive any food, water or medical care.
This order applied to many of the 5,000 children in Concern's intensive feeding program. Some of those children were severely malnourished and received up to six meals a day of high-protein porridge.
Army guards were posted to keep camp residents away from the five water wells and one 3,500-gallon water tank that Concern had built at Ibnet since January when famine victims started to arrive.
On Sunday, the Army, which has a base nearby, moved in and began ordering people to leave. Residents were told to carry what they could. As soon as they left their corn-stalk huts, soldiers set the shacks afire with torches.
Once the evacuation began, guards were posted on the road heading east to make sure that no one came back.
Yesterday, the soldiers came again and the camp was emptied of all but about 10,000 people. Evacuees from the surrounding Gondar region dispersed in many directions. Those from Welo and Tigray, about 37 percent of the camp's population, walked east up into the mountains.
Today, the rest of the camp was emptied, except for about 3,000 people who were incapable of walking.
The soldiers did not burn any of the $80,000 worth of kitchens, feeding shelters, infirmaries or stores that had been erected during recent months to care for the people of Ibnet. After the evacuation, however, there were more buildings than the remaining residents and relief workers needed.
At Ibnet this morning, in a meeting with the senior staff from Concern, the two visiting relief officials from Addis Ababa were told that many of the famine victims out walking in the mountains did not have enough clothing, food or reserves of strength for a long journey.
The relief officials said the Concern staff predicted that as many as half of the walkers could die.