issue 222 - August 1991
Of dignity and dying
We expect the earth of aid workers in an emergency but would
rather not hear them the rest of the time. Oxfam's Tony Vaux flies into the
middle of famine in Ethiopia to cope with some awkward questions.
It was a strange thing, that - to be offered a free bottle of champagne, just at the moment when the in-flight televi- sion news was showing an emaciated baby with a plastic tube in its nose and tiny limbs, wrinkled like leather.
I tensed up and placed the bottle as centrally as I could over the Oxfam head- ing on the papers in front of me. I won- dered if the person next to me had noticed - or perhaps would write to The Daily Telegraph about the callous luxury life of aid workers. She took a fruit juice.
The news went on. People were inter- viewed. Terrible situation. Aid needed. CARE mentioned, or was it Save the Children? No Oxfam. Were we not there? I would have to check. The public expects Oxfam to be there among such scenes...
That's the way it is these days. Wherever there is a tragedy the expecta- tion is that local people will be helpless, local government corrupt and the only chance will be aid directed through the charities. It's flattering, tempting - and also a very great responsibility. Is it fair?
The plane banked steeply for landing. Through the television-screen window the fields around Addis Ababa looked green and thriving. The VIPs from the front of the plane headed off to their destinations in limousines while the rest of us stood on the gangway bumping into each other's bags. Finally we walked over the tarmac and were formally admitted to Ethiopia.
The first time I came to Addis, many years ago, I really did expect to see star- vation on the streets. But of course there isn't any. It does not seem to occur in cities anywhere.
This time there were very few cars. Why not? No fuel.
Why no fuel? The Russians have stopped sending it.
Why? They are not interested in Ethiopia any more.
Why not? The Russians have stopped promoting socialism.
Why don't the Americans step in and help? If there's no battle with the Russians why should they?
It's the same with the food aid. If the West is really interested in helping - if it's a fight with the Russians or with Saddam Hussein - then the great might of their intervention will be felt. But who cares about Ethiopia? The world can manage without its coffee and Coptic churches. It produces no oil. So the issue of relief is left to the charities.
I asked my Ethiopian companion about the state of the famine-relief operation. 'It all depends,' he said, 'on the agreement between the Government and the rebels. If that holds then food can still move across the lines. If not there is nothing we can do.'
I prayed that the agreement would stay. I was responsible to the British public for preventing starvation in Ethiopia. My suc- cess, it seemed, would depend on luck.
Many times we had urged that the issue of peace in Ethiopia should be high on the international agenda, but the only response seemed to be to withhold food aid until the fighting stopped, punishing the very victims we were trying to help.
'We are going to run out of food in a couple of weeks,' said my friend.
Six months earlier teams of agricul- turalists had surveyed the famine areas, risking their lives to reach the most remote places in the war-tom highlands: No-one disputed their findings. By Christmas it was a fact that Ethiopia would starve unless the food ships started to move.
But now the docks were empty. We were borrowing food from one lot of needy people to give to others who were even more desperate. Spurred by public opinion the British Government was doing what it could within the parameters of one of Europe's lowest aid budgets, but most food aid - more than two thirds - comes from the EC and the US.
One factor was the Gulf War. Officials were busy with other things. Another seemed to be a persistent gut feeling that until the children were photographed dying and shown on television the predic- tions of the experts were not quite credi- ble. So there was delay. The charities themselves felt reluctant to appeal to the public unless there was already an aware- ness that the situation was serious.
In the end so much of the response depends on the public, on you rather than me. Yet when finally the dying babies are projected into the drawing rooms the blame falls on the charities. We are asked what we did with all Bob Geldof's mil- lions, what our overhead costs are (a free bottle of champagne?) and why we are not properly 'co-ordinated'.
We sat down to beer and sandwiches under the giant eucalyptus trees. The air was crystal clear and the bougainvillea tumbled in a royal robe of purple. I still felt guilty.
What could we do? Lobby for more food back in England?
'Yes, but go and have a look first,' said my friend. 'Go to Gambella. There's only enough food for two weeks there, and we don't know when any more is coming.'
The next day I drove, and the day after that. It was good to feel that there was some action. At last I had nearly reached the border with Sudan. It was one of the refugee camps where starvation and death were frequently reported.
The first impression was rather differ- ent: rows of shops set up by entrepreneurs who had heard of sales opportunities in the camps. It's a sort of secret, but refugees do normally sell part of their ration as they find it difficult to conduct their entire lives on just two food commodities. This attracts shopkeepers but the public are not really supposed to know.
Cheeky children were rushing about. Women proceeded in stately rows through the crowd to the riverbank to wash their clothes. We walked past all that and went to the Therapeutic Feeding Centre run by foreign nurses. There, of course, were the leather-limbed babies and plastic nose- tubes, the terrible sight I had first seen during the last great Ethiopian famine in 1984. Were we back here again so soon? I took some photos - I felt awkward about doing it, but thought the pictures might help bring more food to the camp.
On the way back we saw a ring of exquisitely thatched huts, much bigger than the simple tukuls in which the refugees lived. I peered through the door- way of one of them into the darkness. A man was teaching English to a group of refugees. Each one had a slate and some tattered exercise books.
'John,' said the teacher. 'Can you spell that?' He tried. Other eager hands shot up.
At the end the teacher turned to me politely. I stammered a few words about just happening to be walking by, about how impressive it was to see the school. Their education would be useful when they returned to Sudan.
'That is what we want,' he said. 'That is the only solution for us.'
'Will that happen?'
'If the war ends.'
'Will it end?'
'If what causes the war ceases to be.'
'And what is that?'
He eyed me for a moment and then turned to the class. This time he spoke in his own language. Soon a crop of hands sprung up, less eagerly perhaps.
'The North against the South,' he said, writing on the blackboard. 'Lack of edu- cation in the South. Dispute over oil reserves. Trading competition. Foreign involvement. Cattle raiding. Old disputes. Colonial boundaries. Religion.' The list went on until there was no more room on the board. I began to feel rather helpless.
'Can I help you?' came a calm voice in English from behind me. I turned and saw a dignified lady in neat Western clothes.
'Are you the head teacher?' I asked.
'Yes. Would you like to see the school?'
Of course I had already done so, with- out her permission. Clearly this was a place where foreign visitors should observe the norms of civilization. Quite true - I would not have walked into a classroom in Chelmsford or Christchurch without first explaining my purpose to the Head.
'No, we must rush.' Where to? Why? 'Do you get any outside support for this school?' I asked, for our main business is always to know what foreigners are doing.
'No. It is voluntary. The teachers give their time. The parents built the school and find money for the books...'
I bowed and left. No champagne and in-flight entertainment for this lady.
So there I was. The Russians had stopped giving fuel, so even the trucks had stopped. The Americans were not giv- ing food because the Russians were no longer interested in Ethiopia - or maybe because they were too busy with the Gulf War. These refugees were not in the news anywhere because they were not dying yet. They wanted to go home but there were problems in the way, beyond their scope and mine. Meanwhile they were getting on and educating themselves in preparation for better days.
Would anyone give them food out of admiration? Perhaps, if there was time to explain everything. But there would not be time. Food aid officials are like corks bobbing on the sea. You catch them when you see them. Food would run out in a few weeks unless something was done.
The pictures from the Therapeutic Feeding Centre would be a better way to get help. Better for what, ultimately? To save others from the embarrassment of people dying in their thousands on televi- sion while they drink champagne?
On the flight back home I made notes to lobby for more food and to see what Oxfam could do about the underlying causes. I drank fruit juice only and watched no films. I wanted to keep in my mind's eye for as long as possible the image of that dignified teacher and the eager young Sudanese refugees, thrusting up their hands in the darkness. That image made me feel hopeful, full of the will to do something to help them.
The image of the dying child just left me feeling guilty and impotent. And if it does that to someone in my job then what on earth does it do to you?
Tony Vaux has worked in Oxfam UK's Emergencies Unit for the last seven years. Since his visit the fall of the Ethiopian Government has given long-term hope - but the famine continues.