Ethiopia: The Land of the Dead

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Governments pitched in with equal fervor. West Germany donated more than $6 million in aid, Italy promised to build a hospital in Ethiopia's Mekele province, and Canada and Australia contributed tens of thousands of tons of grain. Still, much more is needed.

In Washington, as elsewhere, politics and compassion often collided. The U.S. has been the most generous benefactor of all foreign nations, contributing $97.5 million in food aid to Marxist-Leninist Ethiopia since Oct. 1 alone. Last Friday, M. Peter McPherson, administrator of the Agency for International Development, said that the U.S. is sending Ethiopia 85,000 more tons of food, worth $37.5 million. But Washington remains cautious about providing long-term development aid. Earlier this year, Congress killed an economic-policy initiative that would have provided Africa with $75 million for development next year. Why? The Administration had insisted that the money go only to governments that reject socialism.

Many critics in Washington charge that Ethiopia's government has withheld food from rebel-occupied areas or simply misdirected government funds. While hundreds of thousands starved, Ethiopian officials spent more than $100 million sprucing up their capital and erecting triumphal arches for September's tenth anniversary of the military coup that overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie.

Nor have Mengistu's political allies seemed greatly concerned about the wasting drought. As recently as last month, according to local" sources, when Ethiopia appealed to its East European allies for aid, it was flatly turned down. The Soviets reportedly even warned that Mengistu should not use military equipment for relief work until he had finished paying for it. Stung, perhaps, by the outpouring of concern from the West, the Soviets have sent Ethiopia more than 400 trucks, 16 planes and 24 helicopters. But Moscow was having problems explaining away its client state's need for aid. The government newspaper Izvestiya ascribed the famine not to drought "but to the colonial structure of agriculture imposed on Ethiopia." The flood of Western aid was, claimed the paper, nothing more than an expression of imperialist guilt.

Getting food into Ethiopia is only half the problem. A moonscape scarred with treacherous canyons and inhospitable mountains, the country is a logistical nightmare. Half its people live a two-day walk from the nearest road. There are only about 6,000 trucks in the entire country, and, so far, no more than a few hundred of them have been used for relief. Even now some villages have water but no food, the refugee camps food but no water. In Bati, which became the country's most death-ridden camp last week, new arrivals kept flowing in faster than supplies. "We are getting more than a thousand refugees a day," said Sigridur Gudmundsdottir, a Red Cross nurse from Iceland. "We are barely holding our own."

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