WORLD

Fighting and famine

Starvation stalks war-ravaged Ethiopia

April 2 1990
WORLD

Fighting and famine

Starvation stalks war-ravaged Ethiopia

April 2 1990

Fighting and famine

Starvation stalks war-ravaged Ethiopia

ETHIOPIA

In Ethiopia, the Marxist regime of Lt.-Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam is fighting a desperate, two-pronged civil war against resourceful and determined guerrilla armies in the northern provinces of Eritrea and Tigre. Maclean’s Correspondent Mary Anne Fitzgerald recently returned from a four-week visit to the war-torn and famine-stricken nation of 50 million in Northeast Africa. Her report:

There are many ways to die in northern Ethiopia—by bomb, bullet or bayonet, by disease, fire or famine. And famine, initiated by drought and aggravated by war, is the major killer. Thousands of Tigreans and Eritreans, largely sealed off by the fighting from outside aid, have already died of starvation this year. And, say relief workers and church personnel, an estimated four million more face a similar fate unless massive help arrives soon.

What little relief does trickle into Tigre, where the rebel Tigrean People’s Liberation Front has driven Mengistu’s army out of the province, is usually trucked in from neighboring Sudan by the rebel-run Relief Society of Tigre. It is a hazardous journey over hundreds of kilometres of dirt roads, clinging to the sides of dangerous mountain terrain and under the surveillance of marauding Ethiopian air force MiG-23 jet fighters. Just how hazardous I discovered for myself when I rode in with an 11-truck relief society convoy last month.

To avoid detection by Mengistu’s MiGs, such convoys travel only after dark. But a MiG patrol spotted ours as it lay under a makeshift camouflage screen one afternoon. The jets swooped down to attack with high-explosive and phosphorous bombs and destroyed three trucks carrying wheat and lentils. Miraculously, there were no casualties among the convoy personnel. A Tigrean who was herding cattle nearby was not so lucky. A bomb fragment tore into his stomach, wounding him mortally. Without morphine to relieve his pain—or even a field dressing to staunch his wound—he died while I brushed flies away from his face.

To the outside world, the enduring image of Ethiopia’s much-televised famine of 19841985 was the sight of thousands of women and children dying in camps as they waited for relief from the West. That relief, totalling 1.7 million tons of food supplies, kept the death toll from exceeding one million. This time, relief agencies estimate that 700,000 tons of food aid is needed to keep four million Eritreans and Tigreans alive between now and the next harvest, in November.

Last week, the warring sides allowed relief agencies to send a convoy of trucks carrying 120 tons of food on a 260-km journey from the capital, Addis Ababa, across military lines to aid starving peasants in rebel-held areas. But there was no guarantee that more would follow; in general, the increasingly desperate fighting has made the Mengistu regime less inclined than ever to co-operate with the relief agencies. And public concern in the West seems less acute than it was in 1985. “Time is running out,” said Teklewoini Assefa, field coordinator for the Relief Society of Tigre, “and the international community is doing nothing about it.” His organization has received pledges for only 74,000 tons of food, less than one-fifth of Tigre’s estimated need.

In north-central Tigre, outside the stone homesteads that dot the arid landscape, people are scratching in the dirt for wild seeds to eat. Houses stand empty where entire families have already died. Mass graves have been dug for the corpses of the thousands more who will soon follow them. And, almost everywhere, emaciated peasants sit silent and resigned, many of them only days away from death.

The war between the government and the Arab-backed Eritrean guerrillas, who have been fighting for independence since 1962, is the African continent’s longest and bloodiest. The parallel conflict between Mengistu’s regime and the independent Tigrean rebels has been going on for 15 years. During that time, a ragtag band of men, armed with a few antiquated rifles, has grown into a guerrilla army 30,000 strong. It deploys tanks, artillery and automatic weapons, but Tigrean front leaders say that everything they have has been captured from the Soviet-supplied Ethiopian army.

Over the past year, the liberation front has pushed Mengistu’s troops out of Tigre altogether and driven south to within 280 km of Addis Ababa. In early March, in a battle that the rebels claim left 16,000 government troops dead or wounded, the Tigreans arrived at the doorstep of Bahar Dar, a strategic airbase in the western province of Gondar. “We are in a position to launch the final offensive,” said Meles Zenawi, a 35-year-old front leader. Last week, the third round of peace talks between the government and the Tigrean rebels began in Rome under the Italian government’s auspices, aimed at establishing a framework for full negotiations. But an end to the fighting does not appear imminent.

The Eritrean guerrillas, too, sound increasingly confident of victory in their separate struggle to achieve independent statehood, or at least regional autonomy. In early February, they captured the vital Red Sea port of Massawa. The success of the twin insurgencies and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s with-

drawal of support in line with his policy of disengaging from regional disputes have clearly driven Mengistu into a corner. He has partially filled the vacuum left by the departing Soviets by restoring diplomatic relations with Israel, which observers claim provides arms supplies and military advisers to the Ethiopian army. Recent unconfirmed reports say that the Israelis have provided Mengistu with, among other items, cluster bombs, a devastating antipersonnel weapon. Highranking Israeli officials deny that they send any arms or advisers to Ethiopia.

Those denials aside, some observers claim that Israel has good reason to help Mengistu: the spectre of an Arab presence on the western shore of the Red Sea should the Eritreans, who have at various times been backed by Iraq and Syria, achieve an independent state. With the eastern shore already under Arab control, there would be an obvious threat to ships moving to and from Israel’s g southern port of Elat, 800 o miles from the northernmost | point of Eritrea.

In another move to stave off defeat, Mengistu has forcibly conscripted at least 130,000 men and boys, some as young as 14, into his de-

pleted armed forces. He has sent them into battle, often barefoot, after a mere month’s training. Desertion is discouraged: regular troops are posted behind the new soldiers, with orders to shoot any who try to run away. Last month, some recruits went on a shooting spree in Addis Ababa because, they said, they had not been fed for three days.

Unlike the Eritrean separatists, the Tigrean rebels wish to remain part of a democratic Ethiopia after overthrowing Mengistu’s dictatorial regime and holding nationwide multiparty elections. The front’s politics are populist with a Marxist bias, and its determination is fuelled by the conviction that Mengistu, a member of the dominant Amhara ethnic group, has pursued a policy of genocide against the Tigrean people. The civilian population has been subject to systematic bombing attacks for nine years. In 1988, the front says, 2,000 Tigreans died in air raids, while 900 more were either bayonetted to death or burned alive after being trapped in their houses.

Such alleged atrocities apart, the reasons for the Tigreans’ hatred of the Mengistu regime are easy to comprehend. In a desperately poor country, peasant farmers have had to pay up to 84 per cent of their annual cash incomes—

estimated by the Canadian International Development Agency at $110 per capita—in taxes. In pursuit of his Marxist social-engineering policies, Mengistu has forcibly resettled 600,000 mountain-dwellers in swampy forests and savannas. And an estimated eight million other peasants have been sent to live in socalled model villages, many of which do not even have outdoor latrines. In the 16 years since the military coup that brought Mengistu to power, the regime has dealt with dissent by a series of cruel purges that, according to author and former Eritrean governor Da wit Giorgis, have left at least 100,000 dead or imprisoned.

In an effort to lessen discontent among Ethiopia’s 50 million people, Mengistu has announced a series of reforms in recent months. He has offered peasant farmers the right to own land and a free market for the grain they grow. And, on March 17, he told visiting External Relations and International Development Minister Monique Landry of his plans to create a multiparty system in addition to reorganizing the ruling Workers’ Party of Ethiopia as a broad-based and nonideological national party. (One week earlier, in Ottawa, Landry outlined $18 million in new famine-aid initiatives for Ethiopia, which has already re-

ceived $22 million in aid from Canada since last fall.) But Ethiopians have widely dismissed such reforms as too little, too late.

As Mengistu manoeuvres to sustain his flagging regime, the twin civil wars in the north continue to rage, with four million noncombatant civilians as pawns in the struggle. Officials of the Joint Relief Program, an independent body monitored by Ethiopian churches and which co-ordinates foreign-aid organizations’ activities, have made fresh efforts to obtain government assurances of safe passage for relief supplies. But if those efforts fail, and if the industrialized world does not respond to appeals for assistance, this year may see a repetition of the horrors of 1984-1985. □