JUST WHEN you think you have mentally catalogued the full range of Marxist Ethiopia's abuses of its hapless citizens, a report comes along to remind you of the poverty of the bourgeois imagination. Post reporter Blaine Harden's account of a young Ethiopian mother, lured by a false promise of free food into abandoning her home in the drought-stricken northern highlands, is the latest evidence.
The government of Mengistu Haile Mariam says it is relocating citizens for their own good. But the international relief agencies believe the government is deliberately using a massive relocation scheme to depopulate rebel-dominated northern areas and assert political control. It is, in short, attempting to dry up the "sea" in which the insurgent "fish" swim. It is doing so, it seems, with the active collaboration of its Soviet patrons, themselves no strangers to dealing brutally with peasant unrest.
Caught in the maw are people like the woman interviewed by reporter Harden. Virtually every form of privation that could befall a human -- decimation of the family and destruction of a way of life -- had befallen her by the time she reached the succor of a refugee camp across the border in Sudan.
No one reading of her ordeal will have difficulty understanding why the Ethiopian government is despised by so many people forced to live under it. For Westerners, however, the situation has long posed a special dilemma. Should the West provide relief for people in distress, even though the providing of relief is a form of assistance to the government that causes and aggravates the distress? The broad response of the international relief community, including that considerable part of it financed by the United States government, has been to attempt to help starving and needy people, but at the same time to try to press the Ethiopian government into less anti-humanitarian ways.
The resettlement question is tricky. The government uses resettlement for its own political purposes. There is doubtless a humane and rational justification for some amount of resettlement -- though there can be little or none for the even more massive official effort to herd peasants into villages where they can be kept under tighter control.
Relief agencies cannot solve these conundrums. But they and the Western publics that support them can at least air the dilemma. The Ethiopian government deeply resents this sort of intervention, but it has no standing to protest as long as it generates human suffering on such a massive scale. One can hope that the Ethiopian people are able to distinguish those who cause its misery from those who attempt to lighten it.