When the cows were all dead and the food was gone, Mohammed Nure Sirage, who is 12 years old and has jug ears, walked with his father to the famine camp at Bati.
They planned to spend a night and bring home grain for Mohammed's three younger brothers. But Mohammed's father never walked home. He complained of pain in his stomach and head; then he died.
His death made Mohammed and his brothers four of the estimated 150,000 children orphaned by Ethiopia's famine.
With this year's famine's death toll less than from last year's catastrophic numbers and with rain returning to much of the country, the crisis in Ethiopia is evolving away from the fight to keep people from dying to figuring out what to do with those who did not die. The most fragile of these survivors are the orphans.
After his father died, Mohammed took the grain home himself in bags on his back, a day's walk in the roadless Ethiopian mountains. His mother had died three years earlier, just before drought set in. His pregnant stepmother had gone off to her home village to have her baby and never returned. His aunt, who helped take care of the family, died, too, before Mohammed made it home.
By himself, in a village where children and old people were dying of starvation and everyone was fleeing to feeding centers, Mohammed took care of his brothers, walking two days a week back and forth from Bati, making a fire and boiling grain in a big pot. After a month, he gave up and brought his brothers down to Bati.
The Sirage brothers all live now in a makeshift orphanage on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. In an institution that until last year was a reeducation center for city prostitutes, they attend school, eat five meals a day and watch television on Thursday nights. Before the famine, they did not know television existed.
They are the lucky ones, an intact family, with Mohammed, the manchild elder brother, keeping watch. At the orphanage there are other children -- survivors of Bati, the camp that mushroomed late last year to 30,000 persons, with a death rate of up to 130 a day -- who have no idea where any of their relatives are, who cannot remember life before the feeding camp, who dream at night about how the famine and all the death they have seen is somehow their fault.
Degie (last name unknown), a nomad orphan who hardly looks older than 5 years old, steals razor blades, safety pins and slivers of soap and hides them in his pockets. He beats up other children and will not be embraced. He does not speak.
Hassan Ibrahim, 12, also a nomad orphan, says his father and mother are dead. Still, he says his parents would come visit him at the orphanage, except that they don't like him.
Waro Robi Hussen, 13, weighed 26.4 pounds and could not walk when she first arrived at the orphanage four months ago. At Bati she lived outside the camp's tents, eating a bowl of flour every other day. Now she weighs nearly 60 pounds and is quick to smile. She is a clinger, a holder of hands, a tireless hugger. Questions about her parents make her angry. She says her parents abandoned her when the famine started. She adds: "I don't care where they are."
In Ethiopia, as in much of Africa, kinship is the one reliable insurance policy peasants have against destitution. When kinship is lost, as it has been for famine orphans, many of whom do not know their family name and cannot recall the name of their home village, the only recourse is the government, the church (primarily the Ethiopian Orthodox Church) and private relief agencies. None of them now is prepared to feed, educate, house and bring up 150,000 malnourished, sick, traumatized and, in many cases, crippled children.
"Whether we like it or not, whether we can handle it or not, we have so many needy children," said Mengisha Haile, head of the Ethiopian government's Department of Social Welfare. "Our decision, for the moment, is to take care of these children within Ethiopia. We don't give children up for outside adoption in any massive numbers."
The government has two strategies for dealing with orphans. The first is to search for an orphan's extended family. If any relatives can be found, Mengisha said the government will assist them with free food. This is being done at large feeding centers such as Mekele in Welo Province. There, as part of a government resettlement program that has moved about 450,000 peasants away from the drought-prone highlands to the southwest of Ethiopia, an attempt is being made to match up orphans with relatives about to be resettled.
Mengisha said, however, that the government is having limited success finding the relatives, especially of very young children who do not know who they are.
The second strategy is to build orphanages and expand existing ones. The government, poor in the best of years and severely squeezed by the cost of famine relief and the resettlement, has appealed to international donors for money.
The appeal for outside money to support government orphanages, however, seems headed for the same problems as the government's request for support for resettlement. Most western donors, with the United States taking the lead, have kept their money out of resettlement, criticizing it as ill-planned, motivated by a desire to depopulate the rebel-controlled north and, in some cases, not voluntary. Although they will not say so publicly, donors here worry how children would be brought up in orphanages bankrolled by the West but run by the Marxist military government here.
If the government's showcase orphanage, the Revolutionary Ethiopia Children's Village, located on a barren plain about 120 miles south of Addis Ababa, is any indication of how Ethiopia intends to raise famine orphans, western support for orphanages seems likely to be held up by ideology.
At the front gate of the orphanage, behind a painting of children holding flowers and smiling into the sun, is a large banner that says, in Amharic: "We growing children are determined to follow our communist father comrade Chairman Mengistu Haile Mariam's method."
Built at the request of Mengistu, Ethiopia's military leader, for children of the country's war dead, the orphanage is spread out in five self-contained schools on a 23,000-acre site. It was paid for with a $13 million grant from the Swedish government and $1 million from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
The campus-style schools and dormitories are distinctly western in appearance. In one of the schools, for 550 children ages 6 months to 7 years, there are kindergarten-like playrooms not unlike those in suburban Washington elementary schools. The walls and floors are painted in cheerful reds and yellows and decorated with children's crayon drawings of houses, ponies and trees. There are chests full of rubber ducks, Raggedy Ann dolls and plastic fish. In one classroom there is a doll house with paper people watching television.
The schools, dormitories and cafeterias, however, are festooned with signs and pictures one would not find in Fairfax or Montgomery counties. On nearly every wall there are pictures and paintings of Mengistu. Some of them, such as the one in a cafeteria for orphans under 7, are 10 feet tall. And there are slogans in English along the rose-trellised paths between buildings: "Today's students are tomorrow's socialism supporters," "Children's Village is the expansion of communism" and "We shall combat all antisocialist tendencies."
Debebe Alemayehu, 13, whose father was killed five years ago fighting Eritrean rebels in Asmara in northern Ethiopia, was in the first group of war orphans to come to the Children's Village. Like most of the other children, he is not really an orphan. His mother is alive in Addis Ababa. But Debebe says she volunteered him to come to the orphanage to get a good education.
The boy attends school six hours a day and plays sports in the afternoon. Next year, when he turns 14, he will work afternoons in the fields that surround the orphanage. For three hours each Saturday morning, he attends political education class. In that class, he says he has learned that since the 1974 revolution in Ethiopia "everyone is educated, paid and working." Asked about the United States, he says he has been told that Ronald Reagan is like Ethiopia's former emperor, Haile Selassie, "an oppressor."
Meskerem Getachew, also 13, has been at the Children's Village one year. Her father died in the eastern desert town of Jijiga in 1980 fighting the Somalis, and her mother volunteered Meskerem for the orphanage. She wants to be a doctor because "there are so many who are suffering." In her classes and on government television she has been learning about the international famine-relief effort.
"The Soviet Union and the East Germans give food," she says. "And African countries give medicine. No other country has helped."
Asked what she has heard about the United States, the largest food donor, she recalls hearing that Ethiopia and the United States fought a war recently and that Ethiopia won. Since the revolution, she says, life has improved dramatically.
"Before, we did not have enough ammunition. Now we have enough to fight our enemies," Meskerem says. "We don't have to beg."
The Ethiopian government planned five years ago to build three or four large orphanages along the lines of the Children's Village, but did not do so for lack of money. According to the Department of Social Welfare, the plan now is to use international donations to build many smaller orphanages, each for about 500 children.
International relief organizations in Ethiopia will not comment publicly about the political training served up in the Children's Village or in the new orphanage outside Addis Ababa for children from Bati. Instead, they argue that it makes no sense to place orphans in institutions where they will be cut off from the culture of their country.
"This government is very supportive of institutions. What we would like is some kind of foster parents program with famine victims who have lost children linking up with orphans," says Jerry Salolie, director here of the U.S. chapter of Save the Children.
"We are not all that keen on spending our money on buildings," Salolie says. "We would rather give money and assistance to foster parents and orphans living in the countryside to help them secure a better life that is not totally alien from the world they know."
The Ethiopian government says that while the foster-parent idea is new here, it may be adopted as a "supplemental strategy." The government is also countenancing a plan by Enku Kebede, an Ethiopian-born social worker from Boston, to build an orphanage near Addis Ababa that would house 150 to 500 children living as families in a cluster of small cottages.
As the government begins to clear out feeding camps, sending families back to their farms to resume their lives, the orphan problem is likely to become more acute. There will be no place for them to live.
At the new orphanage on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, which was designed for 100 children but will soon swell to a population of 500, the teacher in charge, Alamayehu Habtemariam, says famine orphans are the most obedient children he has ever seen.
"Their primary need is to live," he says. "They are looking at us as father and mother. If we tell them to do something, they will do it immediately. They are afraid we will throw them out."