International relief workers at Ibnet, the highland feeding camp that Ethiopian soldiers burned and forcibly evacuated last week, today began taking back and feeding famine victims who had been ordered out of the camp and told to walk to their homes, several days away.
About 10,000 of the camp's original 60,000 residents are expected to walk back to Ibnet within the next couple of days. They will be registered by the Ethiopian government, given medical care and will be allowed to rebuild the grass huts that torch-carrying soldiers burned to the ground during a three-day operation that provoked international outrage last week.
It was also learned that Congress-imposed restrictions on the use of U.S. aid here had been lifted, permitting some of the money to be used for projects defined as developmental rather than being narrowly limited to feeding programs.
The resettling of Ibnet marks a complete about-face by Ethiopia's Marxist military government. It had first reacted to a Washington Post story about the evacuation by calling it a "fabrication," then issued a denial of "the alleged burning" of the camp.
But this week Ethiopia's leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam, announced in a meeting with a senior U.N. relief official that he did not approve of or agree with what happened at Ibnet.
Since Mengistu's meeting Monday with Kurt Jansson, the U.N. assistant secretary general for emergency operations in Ethiopia, the government here has gone out of its way to be agreeable.
"We have gone full circle," Jansson said today. "One has to recognize that having made this mistake -- which was made at a local level -- they have now taken very quick corrective action."
Tuesday night Dawit Wolde Giorgis, the top Ethiopian official for famine relief, who had first reacted to news accounts of Ibnet by angrily denying them, signed an agreement with an American relief organization called World Vision. The agreement encourages the evacuees to return to the camp until arrangements can be made for the "safe earliest assisted passage to their village."
The agreement, Jansson said, allows famine victims to stay at Ibnet until the government, working with private relief agencies, can organize transportation, medical supplies, seeds, tools and food for their return to farms in the drought-razed central highlands. Jansson said the government has promised "a more orderly process of return that will be done professionally."
The evacuation of the camp, ordered by local leaders of the Workers Party of Ethiopia in Gondar region where the camp is located, was criticized by relief officials at the camp who said that tens of thousands of residents, many of them weakened by hunger, were sent from the camp without adequate food or clothing.
With the government's cooperation now assured, the primary concern of relief officials here is finding the people who were forced out. Jansson said that about 10,000 are believed to have stayed within a three-hour walk of the camp.
The whereabouts of the rest -- along with how many there are -- is much less clear. Jansson said 2,000 have gone to the southern end of nearby Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile River. Another 5,000 to 6,000 are thought to have gone 50 miles away to camps along the Tekeze River in mountainous Welo Province, to the east of Ibnet. Up to 2,000 others have found their way to government feeding stations in Welo.
The number of people forced out of the camp first was estimated, by relief officials who ran Ibnet, to be about 52,000. Jansson said today, however, that a new count found that 32,000 to 38,000 were evacuated in three days.
International attention drawn to Ibnet appears to have pushed Mengistu into making a significant new commitment to using Ethiopian trucks to help unclog a transportation bottleneck that has tied up huge amounts of food at the country's ports.
More than 60 percent of the 332,000 tons of food delivered since January has not been distributed.
Mengistu and Jansson today flew to Aseb, Ethiopia's largest port, where about 100,000 tons of food is waiting for trucks.
A freak rain storm Sunday destroyed about 5,000 tons of the food, enough to feed about 50,000 people for a year on minimum rations. Unless the backlog of food is moved quickly, officials fear much more food will be spoiled.
At Aseb today, according to Jansson, Mengistu promised he would divert enough government-owned, nonmilitary trucks to almost triple the amount of food trucked from the port each day.