A year ago, stretchers were dispatched every morning in this famine camp to collect bodies. They were brought to the morgue tent, washed and wrapped in shrouds fashioned from food-aid bags. Outside the morgue, mothers, sisters and wives sat in the dirt morning after morning and wept.
Last week, the morgue was empty. Scores of stretchers, which once had borne as many as 100 corpses a day, lay on the floor of the morgue, gathering dust. Just outside, fat-cheeked children played and sang, joyfully oblivious to the past.
The one-year transformation of Korem from a burgeoning famine camp where doctors felt helpless to a shrinking feeding center where doctors are bored is testament to a worldwide relief operation that in the past year has defanged, if not yet defeated, Ethiopia's great famine.
A year ago, relief food reached only one out of 10 of the 7.9 million Ethiopians threatened by starvation, according to U.N. figures. Now, after the emergency importation of nearly a million metric tons of food and the expenditure of about $1.3 billion, the United Nations estimates that nine out of 10 of those people are being fed.
"What we have done is save the lives of most of the 7.9 million who were at risk. Some have died, but it is in the hundreds of thousands, not the millions. It is one of the world's great success stories," said Fred C. Fischer, the U.S. coordinator of emergency relief in Ethiopia, speaking of the combined efforts of 35 countries, several U.N. agencies and 47 nongovernmental organizations.
At the height of the emergency last March there were 43 famine camps feeding about a million people. The remaining 23 camps now feed fewer than 70,000. Ethiopians walk away from the camps nearly every day. At Korem, which last year fed about 55,000 people and now has about 15,000, another 4,000 went home last week.
To a journalist who passed through Korem last year, the changes wrought in 12 months are astounding. In the camp's four hospital sheds, Ethiopians last year slept six or seven to a bed, shivering in rags in the highland cold. In those sheds last week, they slept one or two to a bed, wrapped in thick wool blankets. Many beds in the hospital, which is swept and disinfected every morning, were empty.
The cholera isolation ward where 228 people died in one month last spring is now closed.
Flies no longer crawl in the eyes of children too weak to shoo them away.
Nearly all the children screened last week for health problems, in a routine that preceded their departure from Korem, were well; many were chubby.
Last year, the camp's stick-like children impassively submitted to a weighing procedure in which they were put in a harness and hung from a hook attached to a scale.
Last week, many of them refused the harness and grabbed onto the hook as if to do a chin-up. While being weighed, many giggled.
Yet, despite the smiles of the children and the optimism of their parents, who say they are eager to farm again, the Ethiopian famine still presents an imminent threat of mass death.
Like tens of thousands of Ethiopians who have left the famine camps, most of the people leaving Korem this week will not be able to feed themselves for at least a year, relief officials said.
On their farms, many of which are perched on inaccessible ridges in the northern highlands, they will be just as dependent on outside food aid as they were this past year at Korem.
"These people are going to have to live for the next year or so on the grain, oil and skim milk that we take out to them," said Hugo Slim, administrator for a child nutrition center at Korem, which is run by the British chapter of Save the Children.
Plentiful rains and a good harvest in much of Africa have ended the food emergency in 16 of the 21 countries affected by drought this year, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Such chronically arid nations as Chad, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali and Mauritania are not expected to need outside food in 1986.
Good crops have cut relief needs in Sudan, the second worse drought-affected country in Africa, nearly in half for next year.
Of the five countries the FAO says will require food aid next year -- Mozambique, Botswana, Angola, Sudan and Ethiopia -- it is the need, once again, of Ethiopia that stands out.
The Ethiopian government announced last month that 5.8 million people will be threatened by starvation in 1986 and that another 1.2 million metric tons of food will be needed to feed them. This is more than the combined food assistance requirements of all of Africa.
Aid officials say there are two major reasons for Ethiopia's continued crises, even as most of Africa recovers.
First, the rains this year were spotty and ended too soon in many of the most affected areas.
Second, Ethiopia was so ravaged this year by famine that it could not take full advantage of the rain that did fall. Many farmers were too weak to plant, there were too few oxen to plow, seeds were in short supply, insects and bacterial blight were unusually destructive. Many of the people still in Korem are refugees from failed attempts this summer to grow food in the surrounding mountains.
Berhane Wolde, 30, spent nearly a year in hospital Block D at Korem, which housed severely malnourished families.
Two of his three children, he said, died beside him in a bed he shared with another family. He said he went home with his wife and remaining child in July, planted the seeds that he had been given at Korem, but the rains ended too soon and they did not grow. The farmer said he is willing to go home again and try to grow another crop, but only if food is distributed near his village.
Some of the largest private relief organizations in Ethiopia fear that farmers like Berhane may starve on their farms in the middle of 1986 unless more than a million metric tons of food are pledged soon and begin to move through a food-delivery pipeline that is about five months long.
"What did we save these people for this year, if we let them starve in 1986?" asked Frank Carlin, country director for Catholic Relief Services.
Thus far, only the U.S. government has made a firm pledge for 1986. As it did this year, Washington intends to supply one-third of whatever the United Nations determines is the emergency need.
After a year of working with the Ethiopian government, most donors give it high marks for honesty.
"There has been very, very little corruption. The food has gone where it was supposed to go," said Fischer, the chief official here for the U.S. Agency for International Development, which has spent $280 million in the past year while delivering 440,000 tons of food.
There have been, however, chronic problems transporting relief food from Ethiopia's ports. For most of this year, a shortage of long-haul trucks and frequent breakdowns on the country's crumbling highways have combined to create a standing backlog of more than 100,000 tons of food at Assab, the main port. The recent arrival of more than 400 new trucks, including 43 purchased by Band-Aid Live-Aid that went into service last week, now has relief officials here saying the transportation bottleneck is nearly solved.
There also have been and continue to be rancorous disputes between western donors, who supplied 97 percent of the relief aid in the past year, and Ethiopia's Marxist government, whose major ally is the Soviet Union.
The Ethiopian government has refused to modify an agricultural pricing structure that western economists say guarantees food shortages in this country of 42 million people.
Ethiopia, which the World Bank this year lists as the poorest country in the world with a per-capita income of $120 a year, has what economists call a "structural food deficit," meaning that it is unable to feed itself even in years without drought. Ethiopian farmers, some of whom till the most fertile land in Africa, must sell a large proportion of their surplus crops to the government at prices that do not cover the cost of production. Agricultural economists here say that most Ethiopian farmers respond rationally to such a pricing system: they do not produce more food than they and their families can eat.
Despite pressure from the World Bank, which offered more than $100 million in concessionary farm loans in return for price reforms, the government here made no major changes in farm policy.
But during the past year, as Ethiopia became the most celebrated hungry place on earth, the government has been active on other fronts. According to western diplomats and relief officials, the government this year waged a major and successful offensive against rebels in the north.
While humanitarian aid valued at more than $1 billion poured into the country from the West, the U.S. government estimates that about $1 billion worth of Soviet-supplied arms and ammunition also was shipped here to support the offensive.
"The famine has been competing with a major war," said James Cheek, the U.S. charge d'affairs here. Cheek said that the dovetailing of famine and war has pulled the sympathies of the Ethiopian people and the Ethiopian government in opposite directions. Food aid from the United States, the largest donor here, has "legitimized good feelings toward the U.S.," Cheek said.
But, he added, "the past year's war has pushed the Ethiopian government deeper into the arms of the Soviet Union than ever." Acccordingly, relations between the U.S. government and Ethiopia "have not improved a bit," Cheek said. He added that the U.S. government has no intention of supporting the kind of long-term development programs that relief specialists say Ethiopia needs if it is to feed itself.
"We signed on here only to do fireman's relief, to get them back to where they were. That means millions of Ethiopians will be malnourished when we pull out. But that is not a problem we came here to address," Cheek said.
Besides the offensive against the rebels in Eritrea and Tigray, for which the government frequently diverted long-haul trucks that it had promised to use in famine relief, the Ethiopian government has been active on two other fronts during the year of the great famine.
The government launched a nationwide "villagization" project that forces farmers to live in clusters of houses rather than on their farms. The program's announced purpose is to increase the availability of social services for rural people.
But critics of the program, including several development specialists and members of the government's own Agriculture Ministry, say they fear the program will disrupt local food production. They also question the timing of the program, coming as Ethiopia recovers from the worst famine of the century.
The other major initiative is intended to be a permanent solution to chronic famine in the northern highlands. The resettlement program, which has moved nearly 600,000 people in the past year, takes farmers from the overpopulated and badly eroded northern highlands to more fertile lands in the southwest.
Many western relief specialists say resettlement is a sound idea. From its beginning last fall, the government said resettlement would be voluntary and that families would be kept together. According to reports from relief workers in the north, however, the program has not been voluntary in thousands of cases and many families have been separated.
According to relief officials, many children in northern Ethiopia classified as famine orphans, who the government has said need special help from international donors, have parents in resettlement areas in the southwest. Their families were split up, relief officials say, by local government officials eager to meet resettlement quotas.
A recent incident here at Korem brought to a head the anger that has been growing for the past year between western aid workers and Ethiopian officials over methods used to resettle famine victims.
On Oct. 27, the government sent armed soldiers into the camp. According to five witnesses interviewed here, they rounded up 600 "volunteers" for resettlement and loaded them into trucks while about 10,000 residents of Korem, including some hospital patients, fled for the hills. They stayed in the hills for three days.
Last week, the president of Doctors Without Borders, the French voluntary agency that works at Korem, had an angry exchange in Addis Ababa with the deputy director of the government Relief and Rehabilitation Commission.
"When people are taken away against their will, when the militia come to offer resettlement, obviously this is not a political problem, it is just a human problem. We don't feel that our role here in Ethiopia is to keep quiet," said Rony Brauman of Doctors Without Borders.
"Why do all these people run away to the mountains?" Brauman asked Berhane Deressa, deputy director of the commission.
"Because members of Doctors Without Borders agitate them," Berhane replied tartly.
Then, in an indignant tone, Berhane made a broader statement that underscored the uneasy, distrustful alliance that famine has forged between western donors and Ethiopia:
"I will not accept your insistence on setting conditions. You will be humanitarian if you do your job. You are not competent to comment on any other aspect of our program . . . . We have different ways of doing things in Ethiopia . . . . We cannot be dictated to."