issue 181 - March 1988
Long shadows over Eritrea
Cluster bombs in a sorghum field; relief trucks camouflaged
from the sharp eyes of patrolling jet pilots. NI co-editor
Richard Swift reports from famine-torn Eritrea.
I never did see the MIG. Just heard the intimidating roar as it cruised over the narrow rocky canyon, then saw its shadow on the hill opposite the carefully hidden mud hut in which I was staying. Just one flash of red cloth or the glint of a truck windshield not adequately camouflaged might have caught that Ethiopian pilot's eye and caused him to blast off a couple of rockets or drench the valley with napalm. As it was the plane passed by.
Everything in liberated Eritrea - controlled by the socialist Eritrean People's Liberation Front - starts to move after four in the afternoon, when the long shadows in the valleys make it safe. Then the gentle cooing of desert doves is broken by the roar of truck engines starting up as the Eritrean Relief Association starts transporting relief food.
The ERA's efforts are crucial. Last year's rains never materialized and the effect on the fields has been devastating. 'We planted three times,' one frustrated farmer told me as he surveyed the parched hills. 'First we had to fight the army worms, then the locusts. The rains started and then they stopped. Now there is nothing but dust.' An independent study done by the University of Leeds in the UK predicts that 1.5 million people in Eritrea alone will be affected this time around. The aid agencies based in Sudan have geared up for a relief effort on the scale of the 1985 famine.
But this famine is no simple quirk of nature. The MIGs are there to fight the Eritreans in their war for independence - a war they have been fighting for 25 years, ever since the United Nations put their country under Ethiopian rule after World War II - without thinking to ask permission from the Eritrean people.
Knee-jerk wire-service journalism presents it as little more than a bloody adjunct to the famine. And headlines like 'Rebels burn food intended for starving' mean that complex facts about a long and difficult liberation struggle seldom intrude on a juicy story of a convoy attack.
This attitude assumes that there is a pure way to help, untainted by political choices. But it is a fundamentally dishonest approach, because it replaces a proper examination of the issue with crude hand-wringing about people's inhumanity to one another.
It also implies that, despite our generosity, 'these' people are simply incapable of helping themselves. Worse still, It helps maintain the wall of silence the Ethiopian Government has built around the internal wars it is fighting.
So what are the facts? The first is that the Eritreans, and other armed groups in Northern Ethiopia, have continually called for a truce to allow for the distribution of relief supplies. But the military dictatorship in Addis Ababa has refused to respond - because they refuse to admit openly that a war is going on. Meanwhile their air force continually harasses relief efforts in the guerrilla-held areas where most of the famine victims live.
According to one extensive survey by the UK-based Centre for Development Studies, 1,400 civilians have been killed in Eritrea alone, to say nothing of thousands of goats, camels and cattle that these semi-nomadic people depend on to survive. I saw unexploded Ethiopian cluster bombs in fields of sorghum near the Eritrean village of Agra. The only possible targets for such bombs are farmers trying to feed themselves and their communities.
The Eritrean Relief Association has a good reputation for delivering the goods - by truck, camel, even on their own backs - to the worst-affected communities. Food is distributed at night in order to avoid discovery from the air. On the Ethiopian side the relief effort consists of setting up feeding centres in the larger towns. This means people have to walk for days and often arrive too weak for the food to make much difference. By the time they get home the supplies they carry are pretty depleted. Which is the most effective aid channel is not about good guys and bad guys but about the simple logistics of how the war is being fought.
There are no shortage of charges and counter charges. The Ethiopians maintain that 'the bandits' are attacking unarmed food convoys. The opposition in Eritrea and Tigray claim the Ethiopians are using relief trucks as a cover for moving military hardware. They also claim that the Government has withheld relief supplies in order to get the starving to pay back taxes, to conscript them into the army and to force them to resettle in less politically volatile area. The Horn has always had periodic drought and foot shortage. It is only the decades-long war that transforms these into full-scale disasters.