MEKELE, ETHIOPIA -- The man known as "the great enemy of the Ethiopian people" didn't look particularly mean, a little guy sporting a wispy goatee and a wrinkled gray scarf. He was eating a bowl of scrambled eggs and goat meat at the Hotel Welleb here recently when an old friend from Norway sat down to ask how his work was going.
"We have the trucks and we finally have the road fixed to Sefawa," grumbled Teklewoini Asefa, rolling up the sleeves of his rumpled green sweater. "Now we need 153,000 tons of grain. Got any? If it doesn't get here before June, we will be in a bad way."
Asefa, 35, is a very important figure in this drought-ridden province in northern Ethiopia. As field director for an aid group known as the Relief Society of Tigray, he oversees the distribution of food and medical supplies to hundreds of thousands of peasants living in territory held by anti-government rebels of the Tigray People's Liberation Front.
With a rattletrap calculator in hand and sheets of statistics stuffed into his shirt pocket, Asefa roams the rocky roads of Tigray's craggy mountains at night in a beat-up Land Cruiser, making sure distribution of grain to villages proceeds fairly and on time.
The job is tiring, dangerous and critical, but the most notice it has gotten for Asefa lately is a less than favorable mention on Ethiopian state television. A government official in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, recently denounced him as the nation's "great enemy" for aiding "rebel sympathizers."
"It's war time," Asefa, a native Tigrayan, said with a shrug. "The job is not made to be easy."
Asefa's breakfast companion was Trygve Overby, a relief expert visiting from Khartoum, the capital of neighboring Sudan. Overby had traveled 900 miles over rough terrain to assess the effects of drought and war in Tigray -- only to have his 1989 Toyota Land Cruiser break down and sputter to a halt with a damaged oil filter.
Overby, 37, is the resident representative in Sudan of an aid group known as Redd Barna, the Norwegian branch of Save the Children. Stationed outside the province, he is in some ways as critical to Tigrayan relief as Asefa is inside. Save the Children organizations from Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Canada have pledged more than $20 million in funds and food for Tigray this year.
A key part of their strategy to combat hunger here is a concept known as internal purchase. The idea is for donors to provide money to purchase food grown inside Ethiopia in areas unaffected by drought. This grain is then transported to areas in need. The U.S. Agency for International Development recently allotted $4 million for internal purchases in Tigray, to be administered by Overby's alliance. A prime benefit of the plan is that it helps to develop grain marketing and transport systems in Ethiopia and contributes to economic growth.
It all looks great on paper.
But here Overby was, stranded in rebel-held Ethiopia, hands shoved deep in his trouser pockets. He desperately needed a car to take him to the south of Tigray to see, among other things, whether harvests there were plentiful enough for grain to be purchased and transported north. Even though the damage to his car was minor, the vehicle was virtually a lost cause. Spare parts are scarce in Tigray, which has no car repair shop and not many automobiles of any kind.
Luckily, Overby knew Asefa well and, within minutes, the two agreed to share Asefa's car. "In some ways, this business is like any other," said Overby, as he traveled south in Asefa's car with several colleagues from Norway and Denmark a few hours later. "You develop and nurture contacts. Relief work is a matter of knowing the right people, understanding their politics and trying to make sure you do more good than harm."
A doctor, pianist and theologian, Overby practiced medicine in Oslo for several years before going into relief work in 1986 in Khartoum. "I was tired of the cynicism of life in the West," he said. Friends call him "humanity's answer to the Swiss army knife."
"The reward here is somehow being closer to reality, to life, to history in the making," Overby said. "What counts for me at the end of the day is feeling like a human being. I feel that way constantly here."
But he also is constantly aware of the dangers, he said. His eyes welled with tears when he spoke about his best friend, a Swedish expert on Ethiopia named Lars Bondestam, who was killed last December when his car, traveling through the rebel-held province of Eritrea north of here, was destroyed by a land mine.
For several hours, Overby and his companions took in the harsh scenery as Asefa's car rambled past acre upon acre of barren hillsides, depleted by wind erosion and starved for water. This was the heart of Tigray's famine area, where about 2.2 million people face severe shortages.
But farther south, patches of green grass, grain and shade trees began to appear. There were fields of sorghum, wheat, corn and beans, and plains alive with sheep, goats, horses and cattle. The contrast between north and south grew by the minute. Eventually, Asefa's car entered Welo province and slowly came to a halt near the city of Korem on a hillside overlooking Lake Ashangi, which glistened in the distance.
Overby and his colleagues bounded from the car. On the edge of the lake far below, cattle grazed amid pastures and undulating hillsides in the afternoon sun. The relief workers were thrilled. This was shining evidence that plenty of grain likely was available here to send north -- if the arrangements could be worked out. There was a bit of hope for Tigray after all.
"This is paradise, isn't it?" Overby remarked softly, clasping his hands behind his head as he gazed toward the lake. A moment later, raising his arms in elation, he let out a yell of delight that echoed in the hills. "Let's go get some tea," he said.