Dateline

African tragedy

Brian Jeffries August 4 1980
Dateline

African tragedy

Brian Jeffries August 4 1980

African tragedy

Dateline

Nairobi

Brian Jeffries

Several times a week Sister Rosetta and students from the remote mission school at Kaabong in arid northeastern Uganda perform a gruesome task. They spread out in nearby fields and search the bush for the bloated bodies of children and adults who have died of starvation. Those corpses that are already decaying are doused with kerosene and burned where they lie. The rest are wrapped in white sheets and carried back to the mission where they are buried, two or three together, in unmarked graves.

“Our cemetery is becoming full,” says the 35-year-old Italian nun as she surveys more than 15 fresh graves. “More people have died here in the past two months than in the previous 20 years. Yet, if we had transport and medical facilities we could save many of these people.”

More than 1,500 km away at a makeshift refugee transit camp on the Somali-Ethiopian border at Tug Wajale, Abdi Dualli tells why he fled to safety in Somalia with his six children from the

war in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region. “Ethiopian soldiers attacked my village and I hid with my children in the bush,” he says. “When I crept back I found my wife killed, so I ran away with my children.” The family faces a bleak future. There are already 1.5 million war refugees in Somalia, more than one for every three indigenous Somalis. There is not enough food and medicine for their needs. As a result, thousands have already died and hundreds more join them every week.

Seven years after famine claimed the lives of a quarter of a million people in the Sahelian drought in West Africa, the continent is again faced by a disaster of huge proportions. This time it is

East Africa that is bearing the brunt. Food experts estimate that more than 60 million people will experience prolonged hunger this year in a string of nations stretching from the Red Sea to the South African border. Thousands have already died and hundreds of thousands are considered in immediate danger if emergency supplies do not reach them quickly.All,to some extent, are victims of drought which is endemic in Africa. But 2.5 million are refugees from prolonged and indecisive conflicts in Chad and the Ethiopian provinces of Ogaden and Eritrea as well as civil strife in Uganda. They have sought safety in pitifully overcrowded and unsanitary camps in Sudan, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia. Equally disturbing is the fact that over the past 10 years Africa has become the world’s hungriest continent,with the population expanding three times faster than food production. Of the 29 hungriest nations classified by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, 23 are in Africa.

In Uganda’s desolate northeastern Karamoja region, man and the elements have combined to create an area of stark and unremitting horror in this African tragedy. The war that toppled Idi Amin 16 months ago prevented

crops being planted. At the same time the armory in the town of Moroto was looted of 12,000 automatic weapons and a million rounds of ammunition. Much of it found its way into the hands of traditionally warring tribesmen who made the transition from spears to Russian AK47 automatic rifles in one bound. They have since laid waste the region, burning, killing and cornering most of the food supplies as they go.

Some 400,000 people in the region face starvation. Successive Ugandan governments have done nothing to restore order, and corrupt officials in the capital of Kampala, 300 km away, have stolen international relief supplies and sold them at enormous profit to themselves.

Says Melissa Wells, the head of the UN Development Program in Uganda: “Just by adding up the figures from each church mission station we know at least 100 people are being buried every day. But there’s no way of telling how many other people just die of starvation in the bush before making it to food distribution centres.” Some relief workers estimate that deaths are running at 500 a day and predict the situation can only get worse because of the continuing bloody chaos in the region.

In Somalia, the continuing war for the Ogaden region between Somalibacked guerrillas and Ethiopian troops backed by Cuban forces has created the worst refugee problem in the world. As a result of what appears to be a deliberate bid by the Ethiopians to drive all Somali-speakers from the region, 1.5 million refugees have flooded into Somalia. Some 700,000, nearly all of them women and children, are being cared for in 25 government camps. The rest are nomadic groups who have crossed the border with their cattle and are roaming the country in search of food. Relief workers fear that they may be joined by up to 100,000 more by the end of the year. They warn that there will be mass starvation unless the world provides 80,000 tons of food before September to feed the victims of a relentless war.

In Ethiopia itself, nine of the nation’s 14 provinces have been declared drought areas and the government claims that five million face starvation. But UN officials consider that figure to be highly inflated. They estimate that perhaps one million face famine and that 150,000 tons of grain together with other relief supplies are urgently needed to avert disaster. The Marxist rulers of the nation have good reason to exaggerate their difficulties. It was a massive famine in Ethiopia in 1973 that gave impetus to the revolution that toppled Emperor Haile Selassie.

Some one million refugees from Eritrea—where secessionist guerrillas are fighting a war stretching back 17 years—and from northern Uganda have also flooded into Sudan. The Sudanese government recently called an international conference in Khartoum at which it urgently appealed for aid to cater to their needs and also feed its own people.

Drought and a combination of poor storage facilities, lack of planning, inadequate distribution and low government prices for vital agricultural crops have created food shortages in a string of other East African states, including Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Robert Kitchen, the chief UN official in Kenya, estimates that the region is still about 1.2 million tons short of

grain. So far, there has been no internationally co-ordinated response to Africa’s pleas for help, such as that which greeted the tragedy of the Vietnamese boat people and Cambodia’s refugees. Many Africans hoped that the recent meeting of the UN’s World Food Council in Tanzania would help stir the conscience of the world. But they came away disappointed. Complained one Zambian delegate: “It was all words. We concluded this was more of a talking shop than a serious meeting to solve world hunger.”

Neither does the future look any more

hopeful with Africa’s population rapidly outstripping food production. The result is that the average African is today eating 10 per cent less food than he did in 1970. Says Kitchen: “The food situation is as bad as it has ever been, and deteriorating. From the Red Sea south this area is on a collision course with disaster.” Even if African nations are able to rapidly and dramatically overhaul their agricultural systems, predict some food experts, millions will die because they will be unable to find enough to eat before the impact is felt.