Ethiopia: The Land of the Dead

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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.

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