Bekri Yussif, a farmer in the highlands of southeastern Ethiopia, tore down his house this year on orders of cadre from the ruling Workers' Party of Ethiopia.
He and his family then carried the hut about five miles, piece by piece, on their backs. At a site selected by the party, they put it back together again. To tend his sorghum, Bekri walks back each day to the fields where his house used to be.
Bekri Yussif has been "villagized," as have about 1 million other farmers and their families in eastern Ethiopia in the past year. They are the first wave of a relocation plan in which the government plans to move about 33 million people in the next nine years.
If it continues at the pace that it was executed here in the eastern highlands, the program will force the largest and swiftest mass relocation of people in the history of modern Africa.
In one year, the program has changed centuries-old living patterns. Instead of being scattered on farms across the highland hills, nearly all the 250,000 houses in the region now are clustered in thousands of new villages. Each village has from 100 to 500 houses, lined up in straight rows, nearly 30 yards apart.
"We cannot give our people social services and economic assistance when they are all scattered around the countryside," said Kassaye Aragaw, first secretary of the Workers' Party in Harerge region. "Basically, man likes to live collectively."
Kassaye said that the program will add to security in rural areas and facilitate teaching Marxism-Leninism to farmers. But he insisted that the primary aim of the program is "to improve the living standards of the people. Nobody forced the people to gather together. It was their own free will." A survey by a relief agency disputes that assertion, however.
Although Ethiopia has had some successful resettlement programs in the past -- mostly of pastoral people and with large infusions of international aid -- the size and suddenness of the current village plan has alarmed development specialists and relief workers in this country, which the World Bank lists as the world's poorest and which is still reeling from the effects of its most severe famine during this century.
The heads of several of the major relief and development agencies operating here say the mass relocation, as it has been carried out so far, is likely to create more famine.
"It is asking for trouble," said Michael Stahl, an agricultural specialist with the Swedish international development agency. "The immediate effect is that people will be busy moving their houses. They will not have time to work their fields. Why create turbulence in the few productive areas of the country, especially now when the country's need for food is so great?"
Many relief officials say that the move to villages, in principle, makes sense and that Ethiopia desperately needs rural development. But they question the way the government is going about a program that represents one of the most dramatic social upheavals in the history of the country.
"This program is not evil. It is just the style in which it is done. It is being done too fast, without paying any attention to the consequences," said the head of one large relief agency here. Like nearly all of eight agriculture and relief experts interviewed in Ethiopia, he did not want to be quoted by name.
The program was ordered by Ethiopia's leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam, and is being carried out by leaders of the country's increasingly powerful Marxist party. Western relief officials fear that any public criticism of the relocation scheme could result in their expulsion from Ethiopia and cancellation of relief programs, many of which recently have spent millions of dollars in the country.
Kassaye, the top party official in charge of the village program here in eastern Ethiopia's Harerge region, recently dismissed in an interview any criticisms of the scheme as "distortions" made by the enemies of Marxist Ethiopia. He said that farmers will be allowed to farm their own plots of land and that their crops will not be collectivized.
A recent survey of relocated farmers in Harerge done by a western relief agency working in the area disputes Kassaye's claim that the program is voluntary.
According to an official of the agency, most of the farmers interviewed said that they did not want to move and that they were forced to do so by party cadre. Many complained that they were toting their houses to their new village when they should have been tending their fields.
The Harerge region, which government relief officials say had its smallest harvest in recent memory, is the only region in Ethiopia that will need more food assistance in 1986 than it received this year. The primary reason for the region's food shortage, which is expected to affect 1.3 million people, is bad weather. But United Nations officials say that part of the reason for the expected shortfall is the rapid implementation of the program.
Relief officials here draw parallels between these problems and those created by the government's resettlement program, which in the past year has moved about 600,000 famine victims from the drought-plagued northern highlands of Welo and Tigray regions to less populated, more fertile areas in the southwest of the country.
Although the government promised that resettlement would be voluntary, relief workers say that in thousands of cases famine victims were transported against their will by local party cadre anxious to meet monthly quotas set by their superiors in Addis Ababa, the capital.
Relief officials complain that in this area hundreds of thousands of farmers are being moved involuntarily in much the same way by party cadre trying to meet their quotas. They say that many of the new villages do not have an ensured water supply, medical clinics or schools.
"The party says that the purpose of the program is to improve social services, but in most of these villages, there are no social services at all. Often the only building besides the huts that the peasants themselves rebuild is a party office draped with flags," said one western diplomat who has toured scores of villages in Harerge.
The party secretary here in Harer, the region's party headquarters, acknowledges that the Ethiopian government does not have enough money to build many clinics or schools in the villages.
"Our economic strength is not enough to answer the peoples' call for economic advantage," said Kassaye. "Nothing was given by the party and the government except knowledge. No other help was given."
The village concept is not a new idea in Africa or even in Ethiopia. In Tanzania in 1967, then-president Julius Nyerere established ujamaa, under which about 13 million peasants were moved into 8,000 cooperative villages. Much of the movement was forced, and many of the villages had no local water supply.
The net effect was to reduce Tanzania's ability to feed itself. In recent years, the program has been allowed to die, and about 85 percent of the country's farmers have returned to subsistence farming.
Ethiopia has had a much more successful experiment during the past five years in Bale region, in the far southeast of the country.
The program provided homes for pastoral people whose cattle and grazing areas had been destroyed by the Ethiopian-Somali war in the late 1970s. According to the U.N. Children's Fund -- which helped support and organize the program -- roads, wells, clinics, schools and vocational training were provided to lure about 650,000 people into villages in Bale.
"The program took several years and a lot of money to be successful," said Alan Court, program planning officer for UNICEF. "It would have taken a lot longer without any resources for the people."
Relief officials in Ethiopia say that the government, intent on carrying out the plan as quickly as possible, appears to be ignoring both the lesson of Tanzania's failure and of its own success.
"Farmers in Ethiopia have invested a lot in their houses. In many cases, their families have lived in the same place for generations. People haven't asked to move. I think many of them will be demoralized," said Stahl, the Swedish agriculture specialist, who has worked in Ethiopia for more than a decade.
Stahl works with farmers in Arsi, a region in south-central Ethiopia that regularly produces food surpluses. There, the party plans to move 1 million people within the first three months of next year.
"If one would go slowly about this, give due consideration to land-use planning and to providing facilities in the new villages, it is a very good idea," Stahl said.
"It is the independent small farmers who is the most cost-conscious, who can produce the most food with the least input," Stahl said. "Why interfere with that when there is no alternative right now in Ethiopia?"