Food Relief Holdup Threatens Ethiopians Series: ETHIOPIA. Part 2 of a 3-Part Series
Robert M. Press, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
ANOTHER major famine in northern Ethiopia can still be avoided - but just barely, say Ethiopian and Western relief officials and diplomats.
Drivers in the first truck convoys of international relief food reaching the heart of the drought area are returning with sobering eyewitness accounts.
"Mothers, children, aged people, seem to be very hungry," United Nations driver Tesfay Mesfin says. He and 55 other drivers had just delivered the first grain to Mekele, the main town in Tigre, a province now almost entirely in rebel hands. Rebel territory starts just 25 miles north of this government-held town.
"Some people were wearing rags, and might have come from other villages" in search of food, says Mr. Tesfay, standing beside his now-empty truck. "People were excited when they saw the trucks. They were clapping their hands."
Tesfay then drove to the series of giant tent storage shelters where Ethiopian laborers loaded the trucks with 100-pound bags of United States and other wheat for the next convoy.
Much more food is needed, quickly, by land and air. Several Ethiopian churches have formed the Joint Relief Partnership (JRP), which reached an agreement with Tigre rebels earlier this year to allow unarmed, unescorted truck convoys to haul food from government-controlled areas to drought-hit rebel areas.
Relief officials hope that a famine will be avoided with the combination of food delivered through this town, other food sent into rebel areas from neighboring Sudan, and additional help via an airlift or through the rebel-held port of Massawa.
But US Rep. Tony Hall (D) of Ohio, chairman of a congressional committee on hunger, said that Yilima Kassaye, head of Ethiopia's relief agency, showed no interest in a proposed military truce.
"Clearly they put military victory above saving the lives of people," Mr. Hall said in an interview with the Associated Press.
But "it's not too late to avert a famine," says John Wiater, country representative for the private, US-based Catholic Relief Services, a key relief and development agency operating in Ethiopia. "Hunger is acute. ... But we believe getting food in (to Eritrea and Tigre) will avert a famine."
The rainy season expected to begin in June is likely to slow truck convoys, JRP relief officials here say. And they need more trucks, and bridge and road repairs. "It's within the power of both sides fighting in northern Ethiopia to determine whether food gets to those people or not," says Willard Pearson, Jr., director of the Ethiopian office of the US Agency for International Development, which is a major relief provider.
But fighting, politics, and pride are slowing relief efforts, according to Ethiopian, rebel, UN, and Western relief officials and diplomats interviewed by the Monitor.
A prime example is the debate over use of Massawa, the port closest to the estimated 3 million drought victims in the northern war zones.
The port fell to the Eritrean rebels in February. Since then, the government has failed to take it back and is refusing to let relief supplies be delivered via the port. …