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Ethiopians Promise Priority to Food Relief

FAR from the recent fighting to the north, farmer Abdra-man Mumed, one of Ethiopia's 7 million drought victims this year, was relieved. His crops have withered several seasons in a row, and his food reserves are almost gone, but today he was getting a heavy sack of wheat flour, courtesy of CARE, the American relief agency.

Rebels took over Addis Ababa, the capital, on Tuesday, but the protracted fighting cut many supply routes. Meles Zenawi, leader of the victorious Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), said Tuesday in London that getting food relief moving again was one of his top priorities.

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Meanwhile, a shortage of international food donations has meant that many Ethiopians, like Mariama Omara, are getting little or no help.

For seven months, Mariama Omara tried to keep her nine children alive - coaxing them, sometimes in vain, to take the only food available - a kind of grass cows eat and a cactus fruit baboons like. But, she explained at a squatters camp near here, at the village of Towfik, "because of shortage of food and disease" three of her children died.

Recently, CARE distributed a small amount of concentrated flour for the children in the camp, but famished adults took their share. Among the 260 or so survivors in the make-shift, grass-hut camp, many looked weak. Three more people died the day several journalists and relief workers visited the site.

Ethiopian officials were told about needs in the village in March, but hadn't completed paperwork authorizing regular food relief there.

Famine serious in north

The most serious famine areas are the northern provinces of Eritrea and Tigre, the southern provinces of Hararge and the Ogaden, and scattered areas throughout the country.

In many parts of the country, recent fighting has halted relief operations. Here in the Hararge region, land mines apparently set by the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) have killed several relief workers and delayed food shipments to some remote areas. In addition, an estimated 400,000 Sudanese refugees in southwestern Ethiopia, who fled drought and war in their own country, are cut off from food deliveries because of rebel takeovers.

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Many diplomatic and some relief personnel were evacuated from the capital before Tuesday's rebel capture of the city. But most relief agencies have local staff to carry on some of the work.

John Wiater, Catholic Relief Services' (CRS) representative in Addis Ababa, says "basically, everything is interrupted now." But, he adds, as soon as the supply routes can be reopened, "we're ready to go." CRS is a major distributor of relief food in Ethiopia. Mr. Wiater says there are several weeks stock of food in most drought areas. But, he cautioned, after that "we run out."

Rebel spokesmen say they are willing to reopen relief supply routes. And in rebel-controlled Eritrea, food deliveries may go even more smoothly than before, because "it's under one management now," says a Western relief official in Addis Ababa.

But even when regular deliveries are being made, Ethiopian and Western relief officials say thousands of Ethiopians remain outside the emergency food distribution system.

Little or no help

During a recent four-day tour of the Hararge region, a group of foreign journalists met numerous Ethiopians still clinging to life and getting little or no help.

Some were displaced. Others are in such remote locations they have yet to be included in food distribution schemes. Still others are probably suffering silently, in isolated areas, relief officials say.

Sometimes the hungry ones break through the silence. As we left Towfik, several dozen people in a nearby village stood in the road to block the vehicles. They said they, too, were hungry.

"For three seasons, our crops have failed," said one woman. "Sometimes we don't even get enough rain for this cattle grass we're eating."

Next to the very remote village of Burka, hundreds of families are living in a squatters' settlement of huts, having fled rebel attacks and drought. Halima Mohammed and her husband, in weakened condition, were among them.

Mrs. Mohammed said they had been out collecting firewood when people in the camp were given ration cards for relief food. Meanwhile, they were subsisting on scraps donated by neighbors. It was not enough. Two of her children died, and her others look famished.

Yassin Mohammed, a Save the Children Fund (UK) employee visiting the camp, said "this child is dying," after looking at a baby Mrs. Mohammed was holding on her lap. After seeing the family, a CARE official in the camp refused Mrs. Mohammed's plea for at least one day's full ration, saying individual distributions would disrupt the process of feeding those already registered.

And about 370,000 Ethiopians in the Ogaden, in southern Ethiopia, are reported by United Nations officials to be in even worse condition than the people of Hararge. Ironically, rains needed to grow the next crop have turned some relief routes to soup in the Ogaden. Food has to be unloaded from large trucks to smaller, four-wheel drive trucks, slowing deliveries. But determined farmers are using the rains as a chance to plow otherwise rock-hard fields.

Food needed now

Meanwhile, not enough food is reaching Ethiopia. "We need food now," says an exasperated UN official.

Donors have had "an attention problem" this time around, says Paul Ignatieff, UNICEF representative in Ethiopia. They've been distracted by events in "Eastern Europe, Bangladesh, with the Kurds, and the Middle East war."

The Gulf war reduced the number of ships available to bring food and fuel for relief trucks to Ethiopia, Mr. Ignatieff says.

In the long run, Western and Ethiopian development officials say, massive tree planting and terracing can help slow and even reverse damage from hilly farms, giving farmers a better chance to grow more and be better prepared for any future droughts. And with peace, donors are more likely to fund such development efforts in Ethiopia, Ignatieff says.

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