This famine relief camp, which Ethiopian soldiers forcibly evacuated two weeks ago and burned almost to the ground, is back in business. Reborn a half mile from its ashes, it is struggling to feed and treat the diseases of tens of thousands of rag-clad returnees, almost all of whom will sleep again tonight on the dirt in the highland cold.
For the thousands who have come back, their daily existence -- at least for the present -- is a grim routine of waiting all day for food and scrounging for shelter. It rained last night, and today there were tents for only 3,000 persons.
There is a threat of epidemics, doctors say, and dysentery, typhus, typhoid and pneumonia are more prevalent among residents now than before the evacuation, according to a physician with a relief organization here.
Recalling their arduous journey, some who have returned are bitter.
The first four days out it rained hard, they say, harder than it has in half a year.
Kasey Gebramaray's 5-year-old boy died in the rain the first night. The farmer, who walked to Ibnet early this year with his wife and five children when he ran out of food on his farm, said today he wanted those who burned his grass hut and forced out his family to be punished.
"I want justice," he said through a translator.
Mebrat Alenu walked all the way home, just as the soldiers had told him to. It was a three-day journey east over mountains to his farm near a town called Sekota. On the way, he ate the 12 pounds of grain he had been issued when he was ordered from here. He spent one night at home, finding none of the food or seeds that had been promised by Ibnet authorities. So he came back, leaving behind 5,000 evacuees who he said were too weak for another three-day walk.
Abera Mekeone left early the first day of the three-day evacuation, before the burning started. He took his wife and 6-year-old boy eight hours up and behind the dun-colored hills that encircle Ibnet. There they stopped and waited for four days beside a steep hillside, the only shelter they could find from the rain. He and his family came back here when their food ran out.
There were 35,118 persons registered for famine relief here this morning. According to a chart in the steel-roofed office of Concern, an Irish relief agency here, there were only 2,545 persons left in Ibnet after the evacuation was stopped April 30. Before the burning began, the chart said, Ibnet had 58,071, which made it the largest famine relief camp in Ethiopia.
But these figures appear questionable. It did not seem to reporters and some relief workers here today that there were more than 15,000 in the camp. Many returnees have registered for food at least twice to obtain extra rations. Some famine victims were dragging large bags of wheat away from the camp, and relief officials say they sometimes sell the grain to nearby villagers.
What was clear, however, was that the evacuation of this camp, which reopened this week after the Ethiopian government responded to an international outcry, caused suffering and a number of deaths.
"Unfortunately, the week they all left there were very heavy rains. A lot of them were lying under trees. It adversely affected everyone's health. There is a lot more pneumonia, a lot more malnourishment," said Brid Kennedy, a nurse and head of the Concern feeding center here for children. "The evacuation has made us go back to scratch; in fact, it is worse than scratch now."
In the five days after the camp was evacuated, the government says, there were 103 deaths at Ibnet. Before the evacuation, Kennedy said, Concern was feeding 1,820 severely malnourished children. Today, she said, her organization is feeding 2,817.
Ato Adane Mamuye, the top government relief official here, insisted today that when the evacuation was carried out -- ostensibly to encourage people to go home in time for the planting season -- no children in intensive feeding programs were forced to leave. However, Kennedy said that all but 200 of the 4,800 children fed by Concern's intensive feeding program were forced out.
Although the Ethiopian government has admitted that mistakes were made in the way Ibnet was evacuated, relief workers here remained fearful of speaking too critically of the government.
While the present is bleak at Ibnet, the future is better for the returnees than it would have been had soldiers not burned the place down. Donors, aroused by publicity, have promised to erect tents for all the people here, accommodations much preferable to the leaky huts that used to house most camp residents. More doctors and nurses have been assigned, and deliveries of food have been stepped up.