Relief workers at Ibnet, which until last weekend was Ethiopia's largest famine relief camp, confirmed to two reporters visiting the camp today that Ethiopian soldiers forced more than 50,000 people to evacuate the center and that while the people were leaving the camp was set afire.
Two relief workers told one of the reporters that during the three days the camp was being cleared out, they saw two camp residents killed.
Another relief worker, Danny Hawley, an American nurse for World Vision, told both reporters that she saw two pregnant women miscarry their babies while being chased by soldiers. World Vision is one of four private relief agencies working at Ibnet.
Jim Kinsella of Concern, an Irish relief agency, said he saw soldiers setting fire to the grass huts in which residents of Ibnet had been living. Concern relief workers confirmed that on Monday, the second day of the forced evacuation, they counted 17 bodies on the road outside the camp.
Hundreds of residents of Ibnet, in the central highlands of Ethiopia, resisted the evacuation by staying in their huts until the huts were set afire, according to a tape recording made of an interview with Hawley, who said she witnessed part of the evacuation.
"You see, the patients said, 'We would rather die here than go back to what we know is nothing.' And so they wouldn't leave, and while the flames were going on there were still people who had hesitated.
"When things were burning around them they decided to bring their possessions out and at least come out of the flames. But I saw people coming from the huts that were being burned at the time they were still there," Hawley said.
The relief workers' statements were made to two British reporters and other members of a United Nations and Ethiopian government delegation that flew by helicopter today from Addis Ababa to Ibnet. Their statements contradicted a series of official explanations given by Ethiopian officials today about how the evacuation was conducted. The statements also confirm an account of the evacuation that appeared first in Wednesday's editions of The Washington Post.
Returning here tonight from Ibnet, Kurt Jansson, the United Nations assistant secretary general for emergency operations in Ethiopia, said the evacuation was "done with too much haste and with inadequate preparation. It is also clear that there has been and will be suffering as a result of the hastiness."
In his remarks at the airport in this Ethiopian capital, Jansson said that the evacuation of Ibnet made sense in principle because it is time for peasants to return to their homes to resume farming. He added, however, that the government had not gone about the evacuation in the proper way and said that "in the future Ethiopia will handle this more efficiently."
At Ibnet, relief nurse Hawley said that several of the people forced out felt that they had no chance to survive a walk home. "It was their belief that they expressed to us that they would die on the way . . . ," she told the reporters.
Tens of thousands of former residents of Ibnet, including several thousand children under 5 years of age and thousands more adults who are weak from malnutrition, are now out walking in the rugged highland mountains of Ethiopia. Many of them are likely to die of exposure, hunger or illness, relief workers at the camp said today.
The United Nations has begun emergency preparations to attempt to airlift food and other aid to people who can be located in the mountains. More than a third of the evacuees lived to the east of Ibnet in Welo and Tigray provinces. To get home, they must walk for at least three days and as many as 14.
Early today, the government denied The Washington Post's account of the evacuation, which was based on interviews with two senior western relief officials who visited Ibnet Tuesday and who asked not to be identified.
Dawit Wolde Giorgis, commissioner of the Ethiopian government's Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, which is responsible for famine relief here, told the Reuter news agency that the story was a "fabrication" by a "cub reporter" trying to please his employers.
At the Addis Ababa airport before noon today, Dawit denied The Washington Post correspondent's request to accompany the party flying to Ibnet in a Polish relief helicopter.
William Shawcross, reporting for the London Observer and Rolling Stone magazine, and Michael Woolridge of the BBC, were then allowed on the flight. Both reporters provided information on which this story is based.
After a two-hour flight to the town of Gondar, the capital of Gondar Province, the visiting official and reporters were given a version of the evacuation that subsequently was contradicted by relief workers at Ibnet.
Gondar officials of the Workers' Party of Ethiopia, which under Ethiopia's Marxist government administers the region, specifically denied that the military was involved in the evacuation. They said that it had been planned for more than a month and that 7,000 persons a week had left the camp during that time with rations of food.
The officials said that the people had been given the option of resettlement in the western part of Gondar and were told that if they refused they would be sent home. This was national policy, the officials said. This policy statement was confirmed by Dawit.
During the course of the day, Ethiopian party officials provided reporters with three versions of how Ibnet was burned. All versions denied involvement of soldiers. One version described the burning as an accident, a second called it a sanitation measure and a third said it was the act of one misguided person who is now in jail.
At the camp, reporters learned that relief workers from World Vision had been told by local authorities not to talk about the evacuation. But under questioning from reporters and from Dawit, among others, they discussed the episode.
The relief workers from World Vision and Concern said that there had been no mass departures from the camp before last weekend. They said they had first been informed of the party's decision to evacuate Ibnet on Saturday afternoon, after which time party officials said no one from Welo and Gondar was to be given food, water or medical assistance.
Hawley said that the burning began on Sunday and that while she did not see soldiers setting fires because she was ordered to stay in the World Vision medical compound nearby, she talked to several camp residents who said they did see soldiers set fires.
Kinsella of Concern told reporters he personally saw soldiers setting fires.
Hawley said that some "but not all" of the evacuees were given dry rations of food, 15 kilograms for adults and seven for children.
"We have clothing and blankets to give to evacuees but they the soldiers wouldn't allow us to distribute it," Hawley said on tape, "and we also had seeds, which they wouldn't allow."
Government officials said yesterday that those walking away from Ibnet, who would be arriving home in time to plant crops for the coming growing season, would be provided additional food en route by local peasants' associations and that they would be provided with seeds and farm implements in their home areas.
There was no independent confirmation or denial of this today. However, relief officials in Addis Ababa said they have no information to verify that seeds, farm implements and food are available in Welo and Tigray, the areas hardest hit by Ethiopia's famine.
Hawley said many evacuees were refusing to walk far from Ibnet. She said several, despite the presence of guards to keep them away, had managed to return to the World Vision medical unit.
"They are becoming dehydrated because they don't have water to cook their food," she said. "The kids we are seeing now are more dehydrated than kids we were seeing last week . . . . I think this will be worse as time goes on. Most of the children were dehydrated when they were forced to leave."
The two relief officials who first reported the evacuation of Ibnet on Tuesday, and who have asked to remain unidentified, said today that the presence in Gondar Province of the giant camp, which mushroomed from 2,000 persons in January to about 60,000 before last weekend, had bothered Ethiopian military authorities who were fighting rebels in the area.
Members of the Tigray People's Liberation Front, which has been fighting the government for nearly a decade, a month ago kidnaped and later released 18 Concern workers from Ibnet, the relief officials said. They also said that Ethiopian troops in the past two months have begun an offensive against the rebels, who control about 80 percent of the Tigray region along with northern sections of Gondar and Welo.
[In Washington, the Ethiopian Embassy issued a statement "categorically" rejecting the "allegation that Ethiopian troops forced famine victims out of Ibnet and burnt down the relief shelter there."]