Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Rebel Food Relief Averts Famine in Eritrea, Tigre

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Rebel Food Relief Averts Famine in Eritrea, Tigre

Article excerpt

WHEN the rebel Eritrean People's Liberation Front captured the port of Massawa from the Ethiopian Army three months ago, international aid officials warned that the takeover jeopardized relief supplies to drought victims in government-held territory.

But EPLF rebels say that the port is usable, and that they have invited the UN to renew relief activities there. That was two months ago - and so far, the UN has not officially responded.

Nonetheless, rebel relief officials in Eritrea insist they can avert disaster.

"We hope we can work out an agreement with the Ethiopians to use Massawa, but we don't count on it," says Eritrean Relief Agency (ERA) field coordinator Gebremichael Menghistu, "so the cross-border operation is very critical and needs to be supported."

The ERA has so far relied on food sent across Eritrea's border from Sudan by "Emergency Relief Desk," a consortium of international organizations based in Khartoum. By the end of April, ERA had received 70,000 tons of food.

"If that continues, we are hopeful," Mr. Menghistu adds. "People are not yet desperate. There have been no epidemic outbreaks, no displaced people, no deaths from starvation and no serious malnourishment." For a region historically wracked with drought, that is success, he says.

The last big famine that swept through Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1984-85 left 1 million dead.

Most of Massawa's 35,000 people have left town. Many find safety from the air raids by spending daylight hours hidden in culverts and under bridges as far as 12 miles away. At night, EPLF and ERA workers supply them from food and water trucks that ply the main roads.

But the famine has barely begun, and there are no stocks of food inside Eritrea or Sudan. The supply is used as soon as it is carried across the border. The ERA says it needs at least 300,000 tons a month until mid-July, when the rains begin. From then on, during the "hungry months" until November, food convoys work at half their usual capacity.

The United States has contributed 165,000 tons of food to both sides of the conflict, and will cover "one-third of the food needs," says Herman Cohen, US assistant secretary of state for Africa.

"The coming months are very critical for us - the worst is coming," says Menghistu. "In terms of the number of people affected and degree of crop failure, this famine is as bad or worse than 1984-85. In terms of the ERA's ability, the present situation is much better."

When disaster struck in 1984, the ERA owned nine trucks and relied on the EPLF's captured Soviet trucks. …

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