Eritrea, the famine, and the news media
THE horrors of the 1984-85 famine in the Horn of Africa have been resurfacing once again in the news media. Reporters are covering events with a sense of passion and responsibility. Yet the root causes of the problem are again being overlooked and, in some cases, distorted. Many in the media continue, mistakenly, to describe Eritrea as an ``Ethiopian province'' and its freedom fighters as ``secessionists.'' Such characterizations have greatly damaged the cause of the Eritreans and their efforts to survive war and famine.
Eritreans are not fighting a war of ``secession''; they have never been a part of Ethiopia. They are fighting a war of occupation of their homeland by a neighbor. A former Italian colony, Eritrea was forcibly annexed by Ethiopia in 1962 in violation of United Nations guarantees of its right to self-determination. Eritreans have been fighting for independence and a national identity ever since. Their war is not based on religion. Eritreans are an African people, half Christian and half Muslim.
The Eritrean aspiration for independence is represented by the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) which controls about 85 percent of Eritrea. Peasants living in EPLF-held and conflict areas cannot get food aid from the UN and other major international groups that work through the Ethiopian government.
In seeking to eliminate the EPLF, the Ethiopian military government has for years attacked Eritrean civilians, especially since Soviet involvement on the Ethiopian side in 1977. More than 700 Eritrean villages have been destroyed. Close to 1 million Eritreans have fled the country and about 1.1 million still living in Eritrea are in desperate need of food and medical assistance.
Ethiopian aggression against Eritrean civilians is a key factor in the area's famine. A recent study from Britain's Leeds University concluded that Ethiopian military violence against civilians in the area severely limits crop and livestock production, leaving the peasants without reserves and vulnerable to famine.
In focusing on the problem of getting relief supplies to Eritrean civilians, many news accounts wrongly blame the EPLF (``rebel'') military activity as a deterrent. Despite repeated requests by the EPLF to assume their humanitarian responsibilities in the area, the UN and other major relief groups do not work in EPLF-held areas, where 85 percent of the population lives.
The EPLF has invited all humanitarian agencies to operate freely, provided that relief operations do not mingle with Ethiopian military missions there. Experienced Western relief workers know that the Ethiopian government uses food convoys to camouflage the movement of military supplies. Also, Ethiopia's military government is on record as diverting international food aid to feed its Army in Eritrea.
Now that the Ethiopian government has ordered all foreign relief personnel to leave Eritrea, the nearly 1million drought victims in the Eritrean countryside, more than ever before, must be reached by an alternative channel: cross-border operations from Sudan conducted by an indigenous relief and development agency, the Eritrean Relief Association (ERA). Some Western journalists and observers consider it the most effective locally based famine-relief agency in Africa.
Unfortunately, ERA does not have enough food to deliver to those in desperate need. Appeals to the global donor community have brought in only 40 percent of the food needed to prevent famine in Eritrea.
In the wake of the expulsion of foreign aid workers, who have offered eyewitness accounts to Ethiopian actions against civilians around urban areas, it is crucial that governments, particularly the UN, recognize the grave danger facing the Eritrean people and demand that wide-scale massacre be stopped. The United States has a moral responsibility to raise Eritrea's case in an international forum where this country's right to self-determination can be discussed and resolved peacefully. It was the US government that used the UN as a platform to federate the country with Ethiopia in the first place.
Although the Soviet Union opposed the federal arrangement, calling it ``marriage without legal right for divorce,'' and urging the UN then to grant Eritrea its independence, Moscow now plays a key role in the misery of Eritreans and Ethiopians alike. The Soviets are sending more military advisers and weapons to Ethiopia at present. Unless that process is stopped, the sequence of tragic events in the area is likely to continue.
Andemariam Gebremichael, professor of science at Roxbury Community College, Boston, is vice-chairman of the New York-based Eritrean Relief Committee.