No train has left this rubble-strewn Red Sea port since it was besieged three years ago by Eritrean rebels at the height of the civil war that has been raging in this northwest territory since the early 1960s.
Railway boxcars, some of them overgrown with weeds, stand forlornly amid torn tracks and wrecked signal posts. Ghostlike houses, banks, and shops with caved-in roofs and shell-pocked walls shimmer in the dry desert heat.
Only the old Italian colonial buildings on the port island, connected with the mainland by a causeway, have escaped much damage. It was here that Cuban and Sovietbacked government forces made their stand, eventually pushing back the Eritrean guerrillas with superior tactics, firepower, and equipment.
The Soviets reportedly are constructing a naval base on the Dahlak Island 30 miles off Massawa to replace lost facilities at Berbera in neighboring Somalia.
A few inhabitants still live among the ruined buildings.Most, however, have sought refuge in shanties of corrugated iron on the outskirts. A considerable number have fled to Sudan or have moved to other Ethiopian towns. To prevent looting, the belongings of Massawa's missing citizens have been stacked in the old market hall.
To help its more than 4 million destitute war, drought, and famine victims, Ethiopia is seeking nearly $2 billion worth of foreign rehabilitation and reconstruction assistance over the next three years. Ethiopia hopes to publicize its plight, particularly regarding returnees from Sudan and Somalia, at the Geneva International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa next April.
Government officials optimistically forecast that improved relations between Sudan and Ethiopia will encourage up to 250,000 Eritreans to return home from Sudanese refugee camps. Similarly, the Ethiopians expect increasing numbers of nomads in Somalia, whom they claim have been forcibly moved across the frontier by retreating somali troops and rebel groups, to come back.
So far, slightly more than 3,000 Eritreans have accepted a government amnesty to quit the guerrillas or the refugee camps in Sudan. Several so-called reorientation camps have been set up around Humera and Gondar to deal with the returnees. At present, these camps are no more than Marxist-Leninist reeducation camps.
Inmates stay in the camps for political instruction up to three months before they are permitted to return home, take up jobs, or continue their education. Apart from some literacy classes, this reporter saw no forms of assistance -- no agricultural or handicraft training -- that one might expect in centers supported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee.
The government justifies the camps by claiming that returnees must first understand how Ethiopian society has changed since the 1974 revolution. "Many of them have been fighting with the rebels or have been living in the Sudan for years," said a political cadre in military uniform at one Humera camp near the sudanese border.
"They have been told many lies about Ethiopia. We first have to explain what we are really trying to achieve before they can return to nomal life."
At one camp housing 360 returnees in long, corrugated iron barracks near the town of Gondar, just north of Lake Tana, student Hadiz Woldu said he had returned under the amnesty because he was tired of life in a Sudanese refugee camp.
"We were all mistaken," he says. "I have been learning about my mistakes here. I want to go on studying as soon as I can." As with some other returnees interviewed, Woldu's reply sounded well rehearsed in the presence of government officials.
In the Ogaden Desert region to the southeast, the dilemma of Ethiopia's displaced persons, returnees, and drought victims appears painfully dramatic. At the town of Dagabur, an estimated 19,000 nomads close to starvation live in a sprawling camp.
"We have nothing to eat," cries Abde Kharia Ame as he stands with a group of angry and gesticulating nomads."Give us food," he shouts in broken Italian.
He holds out a cupful of bleached maize granules. "This is what one man has to live on for 10 days. This." He counts out the number of days on his fingers and then shakes the cup to emphasi ze his point. "Our people are dying."