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Ethiopia: The Land of the Dead

11 minute read
Pico Iyer

Emergency relief arrives, but the starving continue to pour in

The round hut, made of roughhewn wood posts and a conical thatched roof, is known as zawya. In the Afar language, that means the house of the dead. Although it is not long after dawn, 26 bodies have already been wrapped in filthy burlap shrouds on the earthen floor. The air is sickly sweet with the smell of decay. Inside, in accordance with Muslim custom, Hussein Yussuf is tenderly washing the shriveled body of a three-year-old boy. “This is the first water this child has had for a long, long time,” says the 60-year-old man. In the past four weeks, Yussuf, known as Jenaza-atabi (Cleaner of the dead), has washed 400 bodies, and, he says, “the numbers keep going up.” After he has finished his sad task, Yussuf lifts up the wasted corpse and lays it on a bed of fresh eucalyptus leaves. Then Sheik Ali Hassan says last rites and prays for the departed soul.

All around the house of the dead, in a refugee camp in the small northern Ethiopian town of Bati, more than 25,000 starving people huddled together last week. Some 210 miles away there was a similar scene of destitution around the 9,000 famished people who crowded into the Quiha camp. Shrouded in a pall of woodsmoke, their new home looked like a medieval battlefield. The parched, scabrous earth was pockmarked with foxholes in which hundreds upon hundreds of families crouched for shelter against the chill mountain wind. The lucky ones had a branch to cover their dugout; others remained exposed to the elements. As soon as a foreign visitor appeared, the emaciated people took him for a doctor, crowded around and clutched at his trousers and clung to his legs, pleading for help. Half crazy for food, they trampled each other and knocked down their flimsy shelters in their rush to get to the foreigner.

The wind whipped across the dry, brown plains, and a man, naked in his hole save for a flea-infested blanket, died. So too did an old woman covered with flies. A man named Abigurney, who had already lost three children, was asked how many had died in his village. “Too many for me to count,” he replied.

There are too many to count. At Bati and Quiha and more than 100 other refugee camps in Ethiopia run by international organizations like the Red Cross, famine relief has begun to pour in. But throughout the country, at least 6 million people live at the brink of starvation. Relief workers expect that almost a million Ethiopians may die this year alone in what could become “the worst human disaster in recent history.” After ten years of drought and civil war, twelve of the country’s 14 provinces have been laid waste by a famine of biblical proportions. More than 40% of the country’s 42 million people are malnourished, and 2.2 million have left their homes to wander in search of food.

For two years, appeals for aid from relief organizations and the Ethiopian government of Lieut. Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam largely fell on deaf ears. Then, last month, the British Broadcasting Corp. televised and distributed footage that showed piles of dying babies and row upon row of fly-covered corpses. The Western world was electrified. Both British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Australian Prime Minister Robert Hawke were said to have broken into tears at the sight. Overnight, individuals, international charities and governments began pouring in money and supplies at record-breaking rates.

But the response is too little, and tardy. “It is more than 18 months too late,” said Mohammed Amin, the Nairobi-based cameraman whose pictures finally aroused the world. “Why did it have to wait for a ten-minute TV film to awaken public sympathy?” Nor does the torrent of short-term support by any means guarantee true relief for the country’s long-term difficulties. Without a program of Western support sustained over the next few months, said James Ingram, executive director of the World Food Program, “what is already becoming a chronic and perennial state of emergency will become a quite intractable problem. To me this is the biggest challenge facing the international community over the next few years.”

The woes of Ethiopia being brought home last week to television viewers in the West are all too familiar to some 30 other African nations. More than 150 million people on the African continent are threatened by starvation. Chad, for example, has been suffering through a drought that is proportionally worse than Ethiopia’s. In Mozambique, years of drought were followed by a hurricane and widespread floods, and guerrilla warfare has prevented aid from reaching the needy. The continent-wide tragedy has been compounded as Africans, whose crops have withered or whose farms have, quite literally, been blown away, have streamed into areas already overcrowded or afflicted with disease and malnutrition. So many refugees from Ethiopia and Chad have flooded into the Sudan that the nation, once expected to become the breadbasket of the Arab world, now cannot feed 2.5 million of its people.

Although it gave short shrift to the agonies of other African countries, the sudden press coverage, of a starving Ethiopia did succeed in sparking a serious response around the world. Stirred by eight full-color pages of withered bodies in Stern, the nation’s largest illustrated newsweekly, West German citizens sent floods of support to local relief agencies. Meanwhile, in Britain, where the television footage was shown first, the international relief organization Oxfam harvested an unprecedented yield of cash for so short a period. Within three hours of televising the pictures of Ethiopia, WBZ-TV in Boston prompted a record-breaking 900 pledges of support for Oxfam America. Indeed, from a fund-raising rice lunch by housewives in Lawrence, Kans., to a money-raising fast involving 3,000 undergraduates at Harvard, Americans across the nation endeavored to assist the dying Ethiopians.

Governments pitched in with equal fervor. West Germany donated more than $6 million in aid, Italy promised to build a hospital in Ethiopia’s Mekele province, and Canada and Australia contributed tens of thousands of tons of grain. Still, much more is needed.

In Washington, as elsewhere, politics and compassion often collided. The U.S. has been the most generous benefactor of all foreign nations, contributing $97.5 million in food aid to Marxist-Leninist Ethiopia since Oct. 1 alone. Last Friday, M. Peter McPherson, administrator of the Agency for International Development, said that the U.S. is sending Ethiopia 85,000 more tons of food, worth $37.5 million. But Washington remains cautious about providing long-term development aid. Earlier this year, Congress killed an economic-policy initiative that would have provided Africa with $75 million for development next year. Why? The Administration had insisted that the money go only to governments that reject socialism.

Many critics in Washington charge that Ethiopia’s government has withheld food from rebel-occupied areas or simply misdirected government funds. While hundreds of thousands starved, Ethiopian officials spent more than $100 million sprucing up their capital and erecting triumphal arches for September’s tenth anniversary of the military coup that overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie.

Nor have Mengistu’s political allies seemed greatly concerned about the wasting drought. As recently as last month, according to local” sources, when Ethiopia appealed to its East European allies for aid, it was flatly turned down. The Soviets reportedly even warned that Mengistu should not use military equipment for relief work until he had finished paying for it. Stung, perhaps, by the outpouring of concern from the West, the Soviets have sent Ethiopia more than 400 trucks, 16 planes and 24 helicopters. But Moscow was having problems explaining away its client state’s need for aid. The government newspaper Izvestiya ascribed the famine not to drought “but to the colonial structure of agriculture imposed on Ethiopia.” The flood of Western aid was, claimed the paper, nothing more than an expression of imperialist guilt.

Getting food into Ethiopia is only half the problem. A moonscape scarred with treacherous canyons and inhospitable mountains, the country is a logistical nightmare. Half its people live a two-day walk from the nearest road. There are only about 6,000 trucks in the entire country, and, so far, no more than a few hundred of them have been used for relief. Even now some villages have water but no food, the refugee camps food but no water. In Bati, which became the country’s most death-ridden camp last week, new arrivals kept flowing in faster than supplies. “We are getting more than a thousand refugees a day,” said Sigridur Gudmundsdottir, a Red Cross nurse from Iceland. “We are barely holding our own.”

In Bati last week more than 1,000 women and children were packed together in one tin-roofed shed. An eerie silence hung over the entire assembly. In one corner Janet Harris, a British nurse, was feeding vitamin-and salt-enriched water to children too weak to help themselves. It was a dispiriting, and often futile, task. “You can tell who will live and who will die,” she said. “The dying ones have no light left in their eyes.”

The Intensive Feeding Center, as the shed is known, was restricted to those children who were 70% below normal weight for their age. They were given pink wristbands and fed four times a day. Those children who were just a little further from death were given red bands and taken to a second shed to be fed twice a day. The doors to both sheds had to be guarded at all times against the crush of hungry people desperate to gain entry.

But even the thousands who squatted outside on the excrement-splattered ground could consider themselves lucky. “The ones who make it to this camp are the strong ones,” said Miles Harris, a British doctor. “The other 80% are dying up in the hills, too weak to move.”

Despite such harrowing assessments, some encouraging developments began last week to suggest that the relief pipeline was growing more effective. The country’s main port, Assab, where supplies had been fatally logjammed last month, began processing shipments at ten times its former capacity. Two elderly but effective British Hercules transport planes shuttled supplies between the capital and the devastated areas. The government also waived handling charges on all ships and planes bringing relief. Yet even if all of Ethiopia’s food needs were met, it seemed unlikely that more than 20% of those gripped by famine could be reached before they died.

More important, there is wide agreement by specialists that Ethiopia’s agricultural plight could be reversed only by a program of sustained, substantial and intense long-term assistance. However much aid is shipped into the country during the next year, more will be needed to help Ethiopia, and its neighbors, return to productive harvests. Many officials assume that the present torrent of sympathy will subside quickly as memories of the TV footage begin to fade and world attention turns to other matters. The results would be grim.

Even while supply planes raise huge clouds of dust in the bleak landscape, small groups of skeletal figures continue to make long, hobbling journeys to the relief camps. Most of them are little more than bones covered with skin, their faces reduced to huge-eyed skulls. By night, when the temperature can drop into the 40s, they huddle close together in their foxholes; by day, they sit in tiny squatting areas marked off by stones, their meager possessions arranged around them. When shipments of food arrive, local officials, armed with long staves, round up survivors and hand out a few pounds of flour or cereal.

Almost as fast as the newcomers arrive, others depart. Each day in Quiha, grieving parents wrap the bodies of their children in burlap parcels tied with string and carry them to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the neighboring village. There, as priests under bright umbrellas chant ageless prayers, the tiny bodies are placed in a long trench. And each dusk in Bati, when the sun burns red and fierce, four men carry bodies from the house of the dead up a steep hill to their common grave. —By Pico Iyer. Reported by James Wilde/Bati, with other bureaus

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