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Korem 1985 – the epicentre of the Ethopian famine in which a million people died

1985 February 3
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by Paul Vallely

It was 6 am. A chill dawn crept over the mountains that glowered intimidatingly all around the vast plateau of Korem and the camp which huddled, unprotected, in the centre of its plains. The growing light revealed a layer of mist, white and impenetrable and distinct as a geological stratum. The coldness, local people called it.  It hung like a judgement over Ethiopia’s largest refugee camp.

The new day stole shamefacedly across the serried ranks of tents, uncovering a tableau of indignity, suffering and wretched resignation which the darkness had disguised. There were almost one thousand tents, improvised from sticks and large plastic sheets stretched across shallow pits dug into the hard black earth that was once prime crop-growing land. On average 40 men, women and children were packed into each one; the proximity helped to preserve their body warmth against the cold Ethiopian winter night. These were the lucky ones; many others had no shelter at all.

I stood and watched, with the slow incomprehension of a visitor from another world. It was the first month of 1985. A week before I had been in London, settled in the comfortable routine of life in one of the world’s great metropolitan centres. And now this.

With the start of another day the refugees shook themselves into movement. In their makeshift homes, open at either end to the elements, they shivered as they removed the blankets and thick shammas which protected them from the sub-zero temperatures of the highland night. They bared their pitiful sagging skin for a few moments as they donned the thinner white garments which later in the day would deflect some of the anger of the hostile sun.

In the distance the funeral parties could be seen. Nine people had died in the night. Only nine. There was a time when more than a hundred died every day in Korem, but that had been three months before when thousands of starving peasant farmers and their families arrived each day, many of them beyond help. Now the flow of new arrivals had slowed to a trickle. Korem was no longer a place of crisis, but one of dogged drudgery and seemingly hopeless survival.  There were no farmers here any more; they had become camp-dwellers who seemed to have forgotten everything except how to struggle through another day. Many of them had been here for ten months, some longer. Nine deaths were just part of the new reality that was camp life.

Waiting was what happened at Korem: waiting for the clinic to open, waiting for admission to the feeding programme, waiting for attention in the crowded hospital sheds, waiting for the preparation of the high-energy food for the badly-malnourished children, waiting for the government distribution of grain which did not come yesterday, does not come today and probably will not come tomorrow. Everywhere there were queues or else great herds of people, penned inside black plastic fences designed to bring some order to the milling chaos of bodies.  Between the corrugated-iron hospital sheds they sat and waited, sometimes glancing up with feeble curiosity as relief workers moved purposefully by.  In their tents they sat and waited, their features washed by blank indifference.  In desultory groups across the unsheltered plains they sat and waited for the temporary release of food or the permanent one of death.

Outside one tent crouched with his buttocks resting on his heels was Aberbe Gabru. There was grey in the tight curls of his dark hair and his beard was grizzled, but he did not look the 70 years he claimed. They are hardy, these mountain people, and once they have passed the age of five, below which half the children die, they can in normal times live to a good age. Before him Gabru had five scrappy bundles of wood. He squatted on his haunches on the hard ground and surveyed them.

“What are these for?” I asked. The old man looked mystified as the question was translated.

“They are firewood, he says.”

Wood was in short supply, I knew that. Months of fuelling the tiny cooking fires had denuded the surrounding landscape of trees.

“Where did he get them?”

“From the hills.”

“How long did it take him?”

“Two days. Every time he goes for firewood he says he must walk further.”

“Where did he sleep last night in the hills?”

“Between the rocks.”

“What will he do with them? Use them or sell them?”

The old man made no reply but looked at me and then at the pathetic piles of sticks. His fellows in the camp were destitute. Only a visitor or someone from the nearby town could afford to buy firewood. What were they worth, I wondered. More than I could have carried with me, I thought, weighing up the cost in human distress of the little collection of twigs before me. I pulled two birr notes from the bundle in my pocket and gave them to him.  Like most of the currency in the rural areas the notes were tattered and disgustingly soiled. They smelled of sweat and dirt and seemed impregnated with the misery of his entire nation. He was elated. The two birr would buy him enough grain, even at the grossly inflated prices of Korem’s street-market, to last him with frugal use for a couple of weeks.  In the bar of the Addis Ababa Hilton they would not even have bought a glass of beer.

At 9 am the expatriate relief workers from the Save the Children Fund (UK) and the medical volunteers from Medecins Sans Frontieres arrived from their ramshackle hotels in the town. They listened to the reports of the local people whom they employed as field workers in the camp. In the feeding areas the news was that there would, that day, not be enough food to give their 7,520 badly malnourished children the six daily meals they need for recovery. Two meals would have to be omitted, the local SCF co-ordinator Ato Fekadu reported. In the hospital wards the nightwatchmen who all wore, almost as a badge of office, absurd floral kipper-ties, fashionable imports from the time when the Emperor Haile Selassie kept Ethiopia in communion with the West, reported to the medics on who had died and who had been badly ill in the night.

Dr Serge Bechet was not long out of medical school. Like all the French medics there he was in his late twenties; the career structure for doctors in France is such that the only time they can easily volunteer for service in the Third World is between college and their first job. Korem was a baptism of blood: the patients and the problems were so many. The young doctor shrugged. “There is only one problem here – starvation. People are dying of dysentery, pneumonia, typhus and relapsing fever, but what they really die of is hunger. The average weight of an adult here is 34 kilos, half the weight of a healthy person. What we need is more food.  We are discharging people when they are better and they go out and get no food and become ill again.”

In the SCF centre the charity’s senior field worker, Kathy Bogan, was briefing her staff before she left on a two-day journey to another SCF camp at Kobbo and on to the towns of Kombolcha and Dese, the sites of the massive provincial warehouses which stored the grain brought in from the port of Assab, where aid was unloaded.  The reports were that the warehouses were full, yet grain had not been reaching Korem in sufficient quantities for the past six weeks. Kathy Bogan wanted to know why.

Save the Children had six fully-trained nutritionists in the camps, along with 50 Ethiopian auxiliaries and 120 peasant farmers recruited in a Food For Work programme, which offered grain in return for help in the camp’s gigantic kitchens. As Kathy set out her team began their daily tasks.  That day in Korem there were about a hundred newcomers just arrived from the outlying countryside, most of them in a desperate condition.  They had to be weighed and measured to determine the exact degree of their malnourishment and then allocated to one of three feeding programmes. After the new admissions the centre had listed in its books 742 children who were classified as “up to 20 per cent underweight”. These would need extra high-energy food to supplement the rations which the government’s official relief organisation was supposed to distribute to everyone in the camp; that meant an extra 500 grams of rice porridge and a quarter of kitta, a bread pancake, all cooked in massive pans in the camp kitchen, plus two high-protein biscuits. In the category of “between 20 and 30 per cent underweight”, which in the relativity of starvation is classed as “moderately malnourished”, there were now 5,815 little specimens of skin and bone who should have had intensive feeding of six high energy drinks made up of soya wheat-flour, butter oil, dried skimmed milk, sugar and boiled water, plus two meals each of biscuits, porridge and kitta. In the category of more than 30 per cent underweight – “critically malnourished”-  were now 963 children who were deemed to need intensive feeding, which meant all the above plus a further six helpings of the revitalising drink.

This is what they should have received. But supplies had been severed by the Ethiopian government, which claimed a transport shortage. Many relief workers, however, suspected that the stoppage was a deliberate attempt to starve peasants into “volunteering” for the government’s controversial resettlement scheme. The supply of food had not dried up a mile down the road at the transit camp for those who had agreed to move from the unstable self-sufficiency of the wild highlands into regimented resettlement villages in the south-west of the country, where they would work in government-controlled collectives to produce coffee for export. Either way the result was, on that one day in Korem, 6,778 starving children would receive four tiny meals instead of the six their frail bodies needed. There were some who were too ill to care; 87 were being fed through the nose with gastric drips.

After being placed in one of the three categories those newcomers who were able to walk crossed to the de-lousing unit where their clothes were steamed for 20 minutes in old oil drums above steady fires while their skin was treated for parasites and their heads were shaved. “Many people find it shameful but it has to be done,” said the Ethiopian aid worker at the door of the rough jute screen which surrounded this area of final humiliation. Visitors were not encouraged to go in to watch.

Back at the hospital, where the bare earth was covered only with green plastic sheets, a young Belgian midwife, Ines Huberty, was busy in the maternity wards. She worked in jeans and a T-shirt, her long curly hair uncombed. She had already delivered four babies that morning. “Life goes on, even here,” she said. “Besides, the birth of a new child is one of their few happinesses. Most women have already lost so many.”

She worked with  a matter-of-fact speed, interrupted by the occasional burst of affection as she lifted one of the shrivelled infants and pressed a kiss to its forehead. At that moment she was crouching over what looked like a new-born baby, though in fact it was eight months old.

“Her name is Hadas. She was completely malnourished when she arrived three months ago and she had bronchial pneumonia. First she gains weight, then she gets diarrhoea and loses it. I am trying to fix an intravenous unit to rehydrate her, but I can’t find a vein big enough to put the needle in. She is too small. Look.”

The little girl’s bulbous head, her arms, her legs, were covered with veins raised and bruised by the nurse’s attempts. Finally she shifted a silver foil package that was getting in the way and successfully fixed the drip in the child’s fragile arm, which was no thicker than my index finger.

What was in the package?

“A baby.”

It had looked as if it was a pack containing her sandwiches for lunch.  She opened the foil to reveal a tiny, tiny human being.

“It will die.  It is too small, it came very early. In Europe it would be in an incubator, in Africa it will die.”

It was past midday now, the seventh hour as the highlanders called it, using a clock that has not changed since biblical times. The sun was hot and a sickly sweet stench has risen throughout the camp – a mixture of sweat and human excrement, of decay and death. It clung inside my nostrils even after the relief workers invited me to return to their base for lunch under a canvas awning. The French medics beckoned me to a table that was spread with tins of pate and tuna fish, rice which diced salami and a salad of tinned beans and tomatoes. It was modest enough by the standards of their homeland. After the camp, with its queues of strained faces and its bowls of milky gruel, it looked like a feast. I hesitated, overcome by a feeling that to eat would be somehow inappropriate.

“Trust the French to eat well,” I said hastily, to cover my embarrassment.

“What do you expect,” demanded a young nurse, detecting an unintended accusation in the comment. “If we ate as the people do in the camp we should weaken, catch the illnesses and be of no use to anyone. We are workers, not romantics.”

At the ninth hour, back at the camp. Ato Fekadu was organizing the supplies of food for the next day’s cooking.  In the compounds groups of two or three thousand people were sitting in rows, waiting patiently, placidly, more from awful habit than from expectation. They knew there would not be any more food coming round that day. There had not been enough. There never was. But they had nothing more productive to do than to carry on waiting. So still they sat there, ignoring the fact that there was food in plenty on offer at the resettlement camp only a mile down the road.

In the hospital the doctors were making the rounds of the non-emergency cases, whom they had not had time to see during the hectic morning session when people had still the illnesses of the night upon them.  In the children’s ward a young Frenchwoman with the worried smile of an earnest sophomore was looking at a two year old child. Dr Valerie Schwoebel was in fact aged 29 and a fully qualified paediatrician. She was talking to a nurse about the child. “She is much better, she is doing fine.”

“This little girl is called Sege. I have to confess she is one of my favourites.  When she arrived, months ago, she was badly starved and we fed her up. Then, three days ago, she developed pneumonia; weak children often do after measles.  I had to use an aspirator to remove the fluid that had accumulated in her lungs but I think now she will be OK.”

She bent down and touched the sleeping child gently on the head. It was a gesture of love. The doctor smiled. She did not know that the next morning she would stare in disbelief at an empty bed. Sege was to die that night.

The chief local official of the government’s Relief and Rehabilitation Commission was wandering through the camp on a tour of inspection. Yeshitila Demerraw was kind and genial, but cowed by the weasel-faced Workers’ Party man who dogged his every step. These were the men who were supposed to ensure a steady supply of food from the warehouses at Kombolcha and Dese.

“There is no food. There is none in the warehouses,” Yeshitila said.

“Write that down,” the Party man said to me.

Yet United Nations officials who had just completed a food distribution survey reported that the warehouses nearest to Korem were full to the ceiling, I replied. Yeshitila seemed genuinely perplexed to hear this. “I did not know that. I had not been told. In any case we have no transport. We only have one lorry. You will have seen it broken down on the mountain road.”

But Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, the chairman of Ethiopia’s provisional military council, the Dergue, had promised that army trucks would be used to move food now.

The Party man stood impassively at Yeshitila’s side, affecting to gaze unconcernedly across the camp.  By his shoulder he held the battered portable tape-recorder he carried everywhere.  Its distorted tinny speaker  rent the air with the sound of Michael Jackson. “You wanna stay alive, better do what you can, so beat it. They kick you, they beat you, they’ll tell you it’s fair, so beat it.  It doesn’t matter who’s wrong or right, just beat it, beat it.” Yeshitila looked worried. “I have not been told that. People do not tell me these things. I just have to do the best I can.”

He seemed to be doing that. There was genuine concern for those he surveyed as he showed me round his unhappy domain. As we walked we came across four women and a man who sat in a half-circle, moaning as they rocked back and forth, intoning some wailing litany. “It is a funeral,” he explained. “They are telling of the qualities of the woman who died and was buried this morning.”

This was the reality I had been avoiding all day. I nerved myself to walk across to the woman who was obviously the chief mourner. I stood before her, a silent but brutal interruption.  She was a small woman, strikingly beautiful, with the fine-sculpted features of the Abyssinian highlander. Her ears were pierced, but now they were bare of the jewellery that had been in her family for generations. It was the last thing she would part with, but it had been sold that morning to buy the swaddling bands for the burial. Later I found that such jewellery made its way to the market in Addis Ababa where we aid tourists could buy the ear-rings for $5 a pair; for $20 you could purchase the solid silver cross of a dead Ethiopian priest. The woman looked at me. There were tears in her eyes, but no accusation. Perhaps my intrusion seemed no more barbarous than all the others which had been forced upon her in recent months.

“Who has died?”

Yeshitila translated my question.

“Her sister.”

“Where was she buried?”

“In the Coptic cemetery, over the plains. We have offered them a burial ground here but still, even in this condition, they prefer to walk for two hours to the churchyard.”

All the women were looking at me now. One of them had a growth the size of a large grapefruit in her throat, the result of a simple iodine deficiency which I knew could produce cretinism in her children. The appalling goitre held my gaze like a magnet.

“What did she die of?”

“The illness, in the stomach.”

“When did she last eat?”

“Not for a long time, she says.”

“When did she last receive a food ration from the government?”

Yeshitila translated the question into Amharic. He did not fudge the answer.

“Six weeks ago.”

“Thank you,” I said, inadequately, to the woman. Something else seemed called for so I bowed to her, and then to the other women, and then to the man, before turning to walk away. It was late. The sun was being swallowed by another land beyond the mountains. Dusk falls as quickly as a curtain in these tropical highlands. As the gloom descended, the rocking orisons of the mourners rose again into the air and mingled with the blue smoke of a thousand tiny fires.  Soon the coldness would be on the camp once more.

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