The Ethiopian famine relief center at Ibnet, where the forced evacuation of more than 56,000 people in late April caused an international outcry, has again been emptied of almost all residents, and unconfirmed reports reaching Washington say thousands may have been forcefully expelled.
The camp population, which had swollen to at least 100,000 at the end of May, has been reduced to 6,000, according to private relief and U.S. government officials.
The Ethiopian official blamed for ordering the first forced evacuation, which resulted in many deaths, is still in charge of Gondar province, where Ibnet is located, according to U.S. relief officials. They say he was never seriously reprimanded, as had been promised by the government.
The U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa has asked Ethiopia's Marxist government about the reports of a new forced evacuation and has been told that all who left Ibnet did so voluntarily.
The government has adopted a policy of trying to close most of the feeding camps or to reduce their populations drastically. Contagious diseases are a serious problem in the camps. In addition, the government wants to get as many people as possible back to farming now that the rainy season has begun.
No one disputes this time that tens of thousands of the famine victims at Ibnet returned voluntarily to their homes after receiving seeds, food supplies and farm tools. But mystery surrounds the circumstances under which tens of thousands of others left.
"We simply don't know what happened to the people," said one U.S. official.
The Ethiopian government has refused to give anyone from the U.S. Embassy a travel permit to visit the camp, he said.
"We honestly don't know how they got from 120,000 or 70,000 down to 6,000 people," he added, referring to the wide range of estimates of the camp's size circulating among relief agencies.
"We're getting conflicting reports and trying to get more information," another offical remarked.
The government has instituted a rule requiring 30 days' notice before any Western relief worker may leave the Ethiopian capital to visit the relief centers. U.S. officials say they think that the requirement is part of a government effort to curtail sharply the number of Western relief officials operating in the country. This campaign has increased suspicions about what is happening at Ibnet and other relief camps.
Concern about a possible new forced evacuation stems from a report by a United Nations official who visited Ibnet in late June and was told of people being rounded up and expelled at night. The official was told that foreign relief workers could hear screaming during the roundups.
Carol Johnson of the California-based private relief group World Vision said its personnel working at Ibnet had not sent any reports about famine victims' being forcefully ejected. But she acknowledged it was unlikely that such information would be included in telexes that might be monitored by the Ethiopian government.
She said that by June 21 World Vision had handed out 5,631 "ag pak" relief packages to 50,000 Ethiopian who had returned to their homes, most in Wollo Province in the central highlands. An "ag pak" includes a hoe; 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of seed; four kilograms of teff, a grain staple of Ethiopia; 10 kilograms of lentils, and three kilos of chick peas, according to Johnson.
Left at Ibnet now are only children and the very sick or feeble who need constant care, Johnson said.
Another private Western relief group, Irish Concern, is working at Ibnet and helping famine victims whose homes are in Gondar and Tigray provinces. U.S. relief officials and the World Vision headquarters in California could not say how many families Irish Concern had helped.