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East meets West in airlift operations

A squat, Belgian cargo plane lands on an unpaved airstrip, bringing European wheat flour for hungry Ethiopians. It taxies to a stop next to a Soviet plane which has just unloaded its cargo of wheat from Canada. Before taking off again, the Soviet pilot pauses long enough to say: ``People must all help each other.'' Airlifts are the most expensive famine relief operation, and relief officials therefore try to avoid them at all costs. But delays of truck convoys caused by fighting in the region and a shortage of trucks, led relief officials to begin an airlift in early December.

The latest estimates that Ethiopia will need 25 percent more food than originally planned to save more than 5 million people from starvation, makes the airlift more needed than ever.

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Every day, four Hercules planes provided by Western nations, and three Soviet Anatov aircraft fly approximately four round trips each from the city of Asmara, where food is stockpiled, to Makale. Ethiopian soldiers stand guard around the edge of the airstrip as the planes come and go.

As soon as the Belgian plane lowers its ramp, a crew of Ethiopian men run aboard, heave flour sacks over their shoulders, and trot back down the ramp to a waiting truck - all in cadence to a lively, traditional work-song.

As his plane is being unloaded, the Belgian Air Force captain says the current airlift is ``better organized'' than the one he participated in during the l984-85 Ethiopian famine. ``The fuel is there, the loading goes well. Everything is fine,'' he says.

According to Paulo Agoli-agbo, a UN official, ``In this part of Tigre, sufficient support supplies will not reach this area without aircraft. It's very expensive, but very needed.''

In less than 15 minutes, the Hercules is unloaded and ready to fly empty to Asmara for another 20-ton load. The International Committee of the Red Cross is paying for this plane's flights.

The truck, now loaded with wheat flour, roars off toward one of the many food distribution centers in the area. Rural families, most of whom are without food and desperate, are waiting.

And the brown-skinned unloading crew, their faces nearly white from flour dust, walk back to the edge of the airstrip to wait for another plane.

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