Ethiopians Promise Priority to Food Relief

Article excerpt

FAR from the recent fighting to the north, farmer Abdra-man Mumed, one of Ethiopia's 7 million drought victims this year, was relieved.

His crops have withered several seasons in a row, and his food reserves are almost gone, but today he was getting a heavy sack of wheat flour, courtesy of CARE, the American relief agency.

Rebels took over Addis Ababa, the capital, on Tuesday, but the protracted fighting cut many supply routes. Meles Zenawi, leader of the victorious Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), said Tuesday in London that getting food relief moving again was one of his top priorities.

Meanwhile, a shortage of international food donations has meant that many Ethiopians, like Mariama Omara, are getting little or no help.

For seven months, Mariama Omara tried to keep her nine children alive - coaxing them, sometimes in vain, to take the only food available - a kind of grass cows eat and a cactus fruit baboons like. But, she explained at a squatters camp near here, at the village of Towfik, "because of shortage of food and disease" three of her children died.

Recently, CARE distributed a small amount of concentrated flour for the children in the camp, but famished adults took their share. Among the 260 or so survivors in the make-shift, grass-hut camp, many looked weak. Three more people died the day several journalists and relief workers visited the site.

Ethiopian officials were told about needs in the village in March, but hadn't completed paperwork authorizing regular food relief there. Famine serious in north

The most serious famine areas are the northern provinces of Eritrea and Tigre, the southern provinces of Hararge and the Ogaden, and scattered areas throughout the country.

In many parts of the country, recent fighting has halted relief operations. Here in the Hararge region, land mines apparently set by the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) have killed several relief workers and delayed food shipments to some remote areas. In addition, an estimated 400,000 Sudanese refugees in southwestern Ethiopia, who fled drought and war in their own country, are cut off from food deliveries because of rebel takeovers.

Many diplomatic and some relief personnel were evacuated from the capital before Tuesday's rebel capture of the city. But most relief agencies have local staff to carry on some of the work.

John Wiater, Catholic Relief Services' (CRS) representative in Addis Ababa, says "basically, everything is interrupted now." But, he adds, as soon as the supply routes can be reopened, "we're ready to go." CRS is a major distributor of relief food in Ethiopia. Mr. Wiater says there are several weeks stock of food in most drought areas. But, he cautioned, after that "we run out."

Rebel spokesmen say they are willing to reopen relief supply routes. And in rebel-controlled Eritrea, food deliveries may go even more smoothly than before, because "it's under one management now," says a Western relief official in Addis Ababa.

But even when regular deliveries are being made, Ethiopian and Western relief officials say thousands of Ethiopians remain outside the emergency food distribution system. …