Main Site         

Evidence of a deliberate attempt by the Ethiopian government to keep some of its people hungry

1985 August 14
by Paul Vallely

Something odd is going on in the distribution of food aid in Ethiopia; something more odd than usual, that is.

It is not just that the Soviet-backed Ethiopian army has recently acquired – ‘as a loan’ – 4,500 tons of grain from the international aid stocks, although the boldness of the move has angered senior United Nations officials. It is not just that well-informed international observers in Addis Ababa are again certain that the government’s huge grain warehouses at Nazareth are once more full of food which the Dergue is refusing to distribute.

It is not even that western relief workers and diplomats in the field are increasingly subjected to hindrances bordering on downright obstruction by a regime which, although it is unable or unwilling to feed almost nine million of its subjects, is nonetheless determined to prove that it still calls the shots. All of these factors have become commonplaces.

What is new in Ethiopia is a systematic attempt to deprive of food the region most severely affected by the present famine. It coincides with a programme to close down most of the big refugee camps in the area and send their occupants back to their empty fields to await the outcome of a harvest which already looks unpromising.

Wollo is the province which contains camps like Harbo, Bati, Kobbo, Bora and Korem – the setting for the BBC television film which awakened the conscience of the world to the African famine last October. Yet today Wollo is receiving less than a quarter of the food it needs. Meanwhile grain is stockpiling in other regions on the borders of guerrilla-held areas, where the government is trying to win hearts and minds, or where hundreds of thousands of peasants have been moved under Colonel Mengistu’s controversial resettlement scheme.

An internal report from the Ethiopian government’s Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, recently smuggled out of Ethiopia, shows that in the first four months of the year fewer than 9,000 tone of grain were distributed in Wollo every month; the same document estimates that the region needed 35,000 a month. Senior aid workers who have recently returned from Ethiopia claim that the situation has not changed of 228,000 tons needed over the last six months only 70,000 have been given out.

‘There is a strong feeling here of a serious scandal. The huge stocks are unjustifiable,’ says a field report from a visiting inspector from one of Britain’s leading agencies.

Initially the Dergue explained away the problem on the grounds of transport difficulties. But a joint Oxfam/Save the Children Fund fleet went for two months without being given any grain to move.

‘The pattern that emerges is quite clear. Huge quantities of grain have gone to the resettlement programme or are held in stock. Wollo continues to suffer .. The general view is that the government is not interested in Wollo. It is either appalling neglect or deliberate maltreatment.

The policy of the West’s largest donor, the United States, is a significant factor in the problems of the region. Unhappy at the prospect of the Marxist government controlling massive US aid donations, the Americans have set up their own parallel distribution network through which they send food direct to the major US charities. But all these organizations have set up their main operations in what might broadly be called insecure areas.

This year, it was estimated, Ethiopia needed 1.5 million tons of food aid. In the first six months it has received 740,000 tons, roughly on target. But most of that has been earmarked for the US charities, so that while Wollo goes short stock-piles are building up in areas like Eritrea. Eye witnesses report that the marketplace in the Eritrean capital Asmara is well supplied with purloined western grain. And Addis Ababa itself, around which a cordon sanitaire has been placed to prevent refugees entering the seat of government, continues to receive 12,000 tons of food aid a month, more than the entire supply for the province of Wollo.

Relief workers, after threats by the Ethiopian authorities, have refused to talk in detail about the incidents at Ibnat five weeks ago. But a confidential report from one western embassy in Addis Ababa to its home government, a copy of which has recently been passed to The Times, shows a concerted attempt to empty the camp, run by the US and Irish charities, World Vision and Concern.

In April, a bungled attempt to burn down the shelters of the 35,000 inhabitants received much adverse international publicity. Afterwards the people returned and the population rose to 80,000. Five weeks ago officials of the Workers’ Party of Ethiopia began a more furtive attempt.

‘World Vision people are terrified by what they think is going on around them .. They report screams in the night and believe that people are being forced out of the camp when there are no witnesses,’ the diplomats’ report says. ‘Officials from the RRC go through their hospital and arbitrarily pick out men, women and children they say are healthy and order them out of the hospital. These officials have gone so far as to order that World Vision nurses take away the nasalgastric tubes being used by children whose condition is so weak they cannot take food by mouth.’

The report also talks of constant harassment of Irish and American relief workers. The Ethiopians have placed the camp off-limits to all US diplomats. Independent eye-witnesses who have visited the camp recently report that cholera has broken out; the authorities are denying the existence of the disease.

‘The main difference between now and April is that the Ethiopian authorities are taking greater precautions to hide what is being done’, the report comments. This time the action is clearly being taken on the orders of central government. Ethiopian authorities in Ibnat are threatening PVOs (private voluntary organizations) with dire retribution if they relate what is happening there. The decision seems certain to cause massive loss of life.’

Senior officials from two separate European relief agencies have been told by the authorities that they intend to close the camp at Korem too. The head of the RRC has been touting for agencies to open a camp in Sekota, a town recently captured from the rebels of the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement. In an attempt to consolidate its hold on the area, which has been in rebel hands for some years, the Dergue plans to move the entire 100,000 population of Korem to Sekota.

‘It is crazy,’ one of the senior relief workers told me. ‘They cannot get food properly to Korem and now they are talking about moving it to Sekota which is nine hours further along a bad road.’

One major British agency is at present discussing a plan to ship in another 20,000 tons of grain a month for Wollo. ‘If we do so, however, it is quite likely that the RRC will reduce still further its own commitment.’ If they do not, they acknowledge, then much of the relief effort in Wollo ‘will continue to be almost a nonsense.’

Comments are closed.