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One year on and the squalor stays in Korem

1985 October 21
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by Paul Vallely

One year after the BBC film which alerted the western world to the enormity of the famine in Ethiopia there is still a large and squalid refugee camp at Korem.

There are no longer more than 100 people dying every day. There are no longer the huge unmanageable masses of humanity which once crowded the plains. There are no longer the same problems about getting food up the steep and serpentine roads to the 6,000ft plateau.

But as Bob Geldof discovered, when he visited the place on the final leg of his tour of the famine areas of Africa, it is still a sump of human degradation.

‘No human being should be forced to live in circumstances like this. It is not enough for us to have kept them alive if this is how we condemn them to live,’ he said, surrounded by a crowd several thousand strong who still flock to a white face in the hope of receiving something.

There are now about 20,000 destitute highlanders in Korem. In January there were around 85,000. But there is an air of sullen permanence to those who remain.

The months of food aid have made them comparatively healthy. But though they have lost the dreadful listlessness of malnutrition they have developed the apathy of people whose lives have lost all natural rhythm, and indeed it seems at times, all sense of purpose.

The adults sit, like bored Western teenagers, and stare. The children mob and beg with an aggression which is alarming.

The paths, which have been worn hard and deep between the ranks of sullied tents, have formed a net which seems to have a psychological counterpart.

Many of these people show no signs of wanting to find a new way of life. Some of them have now lived in Korem for almost two years. There is a macabre kind of contentment here.

Ethiopian Government policy is now to dismantle the camps or at least turn them into emergency centres through which people would quickly pass once they had been given courses of intensive feeding to restore their health. The model camp in this respect is the one run by the Irish charity Concern at Harbo to the south of Korem which the Band Aid team also visited yesterday. It has a population of only 1,400 and a turnover of only three or four weeks for each inmate.

But Korem is too big to be transformed in this way. In recent weeks the Government has tried to cut down the numbers by sending 11,000 Tigreans from the camp to their homes farther north. It has allocated to them a food distribution centre at Maychew from which they can collect dry rations once a month.

Now it is planning to send more than half the remaining people in Korem back to their homes in the Sekota district, which the Ethiopian Army captured several months ago from the rebels of the Ethiopian Peoples Democratic Movement. Health workers at Korem expect to begin work on screening those who have returned in the next fortnight.

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