Before Ethiopia's largest famine relief center was evacuated and burned by soldiers last weekend, it resembled nearly all such camps in this famine-blighted country.
Ibnet was severely overcrowded, disease-ridden and growing at a rate of up to 4,000 persons a week. Between 20 and 30 persons died there every day. Other than waiting in endless lines for food, water, clothing and medical care, there was nothing for the 60,000 residents to do. The only thing they learned at the sprawling squatters' refuge in the central highlands was how to negotiate the bureaucracy of handouts.
"This place was no paradise. There was no future there," said the Rev. Jack Finucane, who runs Concern, an Irish relief agency that operated a feeding program at Ibnet.
Finucane and other senior relief officials in Ethiopia fear that the circumstances surrounding the evacuation of Ibnet, which witnesses described as forced, poorly planned and brutal, could blind international donors to the need for -- and the need to pay for -- the eventual closing of all the feeding camps in Ethiopia.
"People cannot live in these places forever. They are a drain on the resources of the Ethiopian government and of international donors," said Alan Court, a senior official here with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). "If the conditions are right, people have to be encouraged and assisted in going home. The continued existence of the camps is a sign that we are failing in Ethiopia."
While relief officials here agree that the Ethiopian government badly mishandled the evacuation of Ibnet -- sending more than 50,000 ill-prepared famine victims to walk home on what for many may prove to be a death march and glossing over the way in which the evacuation was carried out -- they add that preparations for sending people home from other camps should begin immediately.
The reason for urgency is the weather. It has been raining across much of Ethiopia for about a month, including several of the regions hit hardest by last year's disastrous drought. These rains, part of the short rains that in many areas failed completely in 1984, are the key to the growing season in Ethiopia.
According to Peter Brumby, a specialist on Ethiopian agriculture who heads the International Livestock Center for Africa, the short rains soften the soil, permitting it to be plowed and planted before the arrival of the long rains in late June and July. When there are adequate short rains, says Brumby, who has reviewed 30 years of Ethiopian rainfall records, chances are excellent for a good growing year.
Timely rain, however, does not help the more than 200,000 persons in Ethiopia's 152 feeding centers. If anything, rain is a curse in the chilly highland camps, causing sharp increases in daily death rates and spreading infectious diseases such as cholera.
Moving people out of camps, therefore, should become a top priority of the billion-dollar relief effort here, argued Court of UNICEF. But he said that to do it properly -- certifying that the people are strong enough to walk to their abandoned farms and that there they will find seed, farm implements and a reliable supply of relief food while waiting for a crop -- will require large amounts of planning and money.
"It won't be cheap or easy to send these people home," said Court. "There is no alternative . . . . The longer people spend in camps, the greater likelihood there is of a welfare mentality. Some parents find that their children are healthier in the camps than they ever were. The camps become a crutch."
The Ethiopian government claimed last week that it would make available seeds, tools and food for the evacuees of Ibnet when they found their way back home. But relief officials here say that these things, especially in drought-scorched Welo and Tigray provinces, where more than 30,000 of the evacuees live, simply are not available in any substantial quantities. The government's claim is especially dubious in northern Welo, relief officials and diplomats say, because the area is controlled by rebels of the Tigray People's Liberation Front.
The fate of the 50,000 persons forced out of Ibnet remained unknown yesterday.
World Vision, a relief agency with a medical clinic at Ibnet, reported today that it was treating as many children -- about 400 a day -- as before last week. Relief workers speculated that thousands of people, afraid to risk a walk that could take as many as 14 days, may be hiding in the forested hills near what remains of the camp.