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Geldof’s aid gets to famine areas other agencies cannot reach

1985 October 20
by Paul Vallely

Bob Geldof and Kevin Jenden, the director of Band Aid, reached Ethiopia on the last leg of their trip across the Sahel region of Africa on Friday night. As the plane flew at 37,000 feet near Asmara in northern Ethiopia, tracer bullets could be seen flashing in the mountains, stark evidence of the Ethiopian army’s offensive against the Eritrean rebels.

Geldof and Jenden leave for London tomorrow. The trip has been long and exhausting. Both had to go to hospital in Khartoum, Jenden with a skin ulcer and Geldof with a septic big toe.

They have been welcomed and honoured in five African capitals. In Sudan the military leader, General Sowar Dohab, presented Geldof with the Order of the Two Niles, Second Class, Officials in the Port of Sudan gave him a sword. In Chad Ronald Reagan tried to phone him at the US embassy to say that Jenden had received the presidential award for fighting famine. But the president could not get through.

Geldof got on best with President Thomas Sankara, the military leader of Burkina Faso, who plays a mean electric guitar. Sankara wants to give a concert and form a group with the president of Ghana, Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, who plays the drums. Rawlings has agreed and Sankara asked if Geldof would join. Geldof said he was too busy but suggested Sankara called up the King of Thailand, who plays the saxophone.

One purpose of this trip was for Geldof who has, as he says, ‘made famine-relief hip’, to show that despite rain in the Sahel and a decent harvest in some areas, famine and the resulting hardship still exist.

Geldof saw pockets of real famine. In western Sudan, mothers tore the clothes off their children to show their emaciated bodies. For three months families lived on poisoned berries which had to be soaked for 15 days, then boiled for six hours before they were edible.

There was a tragic scene in a camp 100 miles east of N’djamena, the capital of Chad, where a community of nomads had walked for 500 miles after their herds had been killed by the drought. They planted crops but these failed because the seed was bad and their farming inexpert. They were starving.

There was, however, good news. Across Africa there was evidence of how Band Aid money, a tiny amount compared to the billions of dollars of aid pumped into Africa, had been spent and how it had helped.

Egil Hagen, the head of Unicef emergency operations in Sudan, said that without the Band Aid contributions hundreds of people would have died. ‘Without their initiative we couldn’t have started the fast-moving distribution of medical supplies,’ he said. ‘When cholera broke out in eastern Sudan in June we had to intervene quickly. Band Aid sent 3m doses of antibiotics and intravenous fluid and we had them into the camps within days.’ In one camp, Wad Sharifi, there were 1,733 cases of cholera. There were 32 deaths and these would have turned into hundreds if the medicine had not arrived quickly.

In a shanty town in Port Sudan called the Devil’s Horn, which is built on a rubbish dump and houses 60,000 people. Band Aid had funded a school and a clinic. It has taken food to the isolated tribes in the Red Sea hills. It is the only agency flying supplies into Boonja, in rebel-held southern Sudan. It is one of the few funding shipments of food and medicine into the rebel areas of Ethiopia and into Wollo, in central Ethiopia.

There is criticism, however, especially from international aid organisations in Khartoum. Agencies say that Band Aid should give a large proportion of its funds to the established agencies such as Oxfam and Save the Children, which are running out of cash, instead of trying to do its own field work.

One group, Save the Children UK, is running out of money for its work in Sudan. The UN High Commission for Refugees is severely in deficit and will have to cut some of its projects. ‘It is a crime that Band Aid is not giving blocks of money away to these established groups,’ said one agency organiser, who asked not to be named.

‘Why should we?’ said Geldof last week.’ It is prudent not to throw the money around and to conserve some of it to fight the next drought, which will inevitably come.

Ethiopia threatened to expel Paul Vallely of The Times when we arrived in Addis Ababa on Friday. Vallely has written critical articles about Ethiopia’s handling of the famine in the past. But Geldof threatened to leave the country too if Vallely was thrown out and ‘never return’. As a result, Vallely was allowed to stay.

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