Ethiopia: The Land of the Dead

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In Bati last week more than 1,000 women and children were packed together in one tin-roofed shed. An eerie silence hung over the entire assembly. In one corner Janet Harris, a British nurse, was feeding vitamin-and salt-enriched water to children too weak to help themselves. It was a dispiriting, and often futile, task. "You can tell who will live and who will die," she said. "The dying ones have no light left in their eyes."

The Intensive Feeding Center, as the shed is known, was restricted to those children who were 70% below normal weight for their age. They were given pink wristbands and fed four times a day. Those children who were just a little further from death were given red bands and taken to a second shed to be fed twice a day. The doors to both sheds had to be guarded at all times against the crush of hungry people desperate to gain entry.

But even the thousands who squatted outside on the excrement-splattered ground could consider themselves lucky. "The ones who make it to this camp are the strong ones," said Miles Harris, a British doctor. "The other 80% are dying up in the hills, too weak to move."

Despite such harrowing assessments, some encouraging developments began last week to suggest that the relief pipeline was growing more effective. The country's main port, Assab, where supplies had been fatally logjammed last month, began processing shipments at ten times its former capacity. Two elderly but effective British Hercules transport planes shuttled supplies between the capital and the devastated areas. The government also waived handling charges on all ships and planes bringing relief. Yet even if all of Ethiopia's food needs were met, it seemed unlikely that more than 20% of those gripped by famine could be reached before they died.

More important, there is wide agreement by specialists that Ethiopia's agricultural plight could be reversed only by a program of sustained, substantial and intense long-term assistance. However much aid is shipped into the country during the next year, more will be needed to help Ethiopia, and its neighbors, return to productive harvests. Many officials assume that the present torrent of sympathy will subside quickly as memories of the TV footage begin to fade and world attention turns to other matters. The results would be grim.

Even while supply planes raise huge clouds of dust in the bleak landscape, small groups of skeletal figures continue to make long, hobbling journeys to the relief camps. Most of them are little more than bones covered with skin, their faces reduced to huge-eyed skulls. By night, when the temperature can drop into the 40s, they huddle close together in their foxholes; by day, they sit in tiny squatting areas marked off by stones, their meager possessions arranged around them. When shipments of food arrive, local officials, armed with long staves, round up survivors and hand out a few pounds of flour or cereal.

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