Ethiopia: The Land of the Dead

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For two years, appeals for aid from relief organizations and the Ethiopian government of Lieut. Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam largely fell on deaf ears. Then, last month, the British Broadcasting Corp. televised and distributed footage that showed piles of dying babies and row upon row of fly-covered corpses. The Western world was electrified. Both British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Australian Prime Minister Robert Hawke were said to have broken into tears at the sight. Overnight, individuals, international charities and governments began pouring in money and supplies at record-breaking rates.

But the response is too little, and tardy. "It is more than 18 months too late," said Mohammed Amin, the Nairobi-based cameraman whose pictures finally aroused the world. "Why did it have to wait for a ten-minute TV film to awaken public sympathy?" Nor does the torrent of short-term support by any means guarantee true relief for the country's long-term difficulties. Without a program of Western support sustained over the next few months, said James Ingram, executive director of the World Food Program, "what is already becoming a chronic and perennial state of emergency will become a quite intractable problem. To me this is the biggest challenge facing the international community over the next few years."

The woes of Ethiopia being brought home last week to television viewers in the West are all too familiar to some 30 other African nations. More than 150 million people on the African continent are threatened by starvation. Chad, for example, has been suffering through a drought that is proportionally worse than Ethiopia's. In Mozambique, years of drought were followed by a hurricane and widespread floods, and guerrilla warfare has prevented aid from reaching the needy. The continent-wide tragedy has been compounded as Africans, whose crops have withered or whose farms have, quite literally, been blown away, have streamed into areas already overcrowded or afflicted with disease and malnutrition. So many refugees from Ethiopia and Chad have flooded into the Sudan that the nation, once expected to become the breadbasket of the Arab world, now cannot feed 2.5 million of its people.

Although it gave short shrift to the agonies of other African countries, the sudden press coverage, of a starving Ethiopia did succeed in sparking a serious response around the world. Stirred by eight full-color pages of withered bodies in Stern, the nation's largest illustrated newsweekly, West German citizens sent floods of support to local relief agencies. Meanwhile, in Britain, where the television footage was shown first, the international relief organization Oxfam harvested an unprecedented yield of cash for so short a period. Within three hours of televising the pictures of Ethiopia, WBZ-TV in Boston prompted a record-breaking 900 pledges of support for Oxfam America. Indeed, from a fund-raising rice lunch by housewives in Lawrence, Kans., to a money-raising fast involving 3,000 undergraduates at Harvard, Americans across the nation endeavored to assist the dying Ethiopians.

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