Wanted: trucks to carry food to drought-stricken Ethiopians

The refreshing sound of rain falling on parched land has brought new hope to drought-stricken Ethiopia. At the same time, an international SOS to save 4.5 million Ethiopians from malnutrition and starvation is yielding some results. Food - now the most precious commodity in Ethiopia - is reaching the nation's ports in plentiful amounts as a result of accelerated international relief efforts.

The overwhelming need at this point is for more trucks and spare parts to ensure that the food gets from clogged ports to starving people, some of whom are caught in a cross fire of government and guerrilla shooting in the northern regions of the country.

The fighting has only exacerbated the devastating effects of the drought and caused a flood of refugees into Sudan and Djibouti, both poor countries straining under an increased refugee load. Meanwhile Somalia - also a catchment area for fleeing Ethiopians and at war with Ethiopia because of the contested Ogaden region - recently reported coming under ground and air attack from Ethiopia.

Ethiopia's response to both its internal and external problems has been dramatic. A thorough shakeup of its military government has left its strong man, Mengistu Haile Mariam, firmly in the saddle. The shakeup has been followed by an announcement that Ethiopia will introduce military conscription.

According to an official of Oxfam, the British relief agency, as many as half of those fleeing across Ethiopian borders are students - presumably those who would be eligible for the draft.

Ethiopia has broadened its international appeal for help in combating a drought that many voluntary agencies working in the country say is as severe as the 1972-73 drought. The Ethiopian government's failure to respond adequately to the earlier crisis was the straw that broke the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie and paved the way for the present Marxist government.

The United States, for one, has just stepped up its assistance. Voluntary agencies suspect that the Reagan administration is now responding to increasing pressures within Congress that it put humanitarian considerations ahead of political objections on the Ethiopian issue. Ethiopia is a firm supporter of the Soviet Union, its principal arms supplier, and has angered Washington in the past with strident anti-US attacks.

''The major point is that the US government is now responding in greater measure to the crisis and we applaud that,'' says Carol Capps of Church World Service and Lutheran World Relief in Washington.

She was reacting to the July 26 announcement by the administrator of the US Agency for International Development (AID), Peter McPherson, that the US would provide an additional $700,000 to Ethiopia. The bulk of that will go to renting trucks where delivery of food is frustrated by poor roads or lack of roads, insufficient numbers of trucks and spare parts, and an inability or reluctance to penetrate large areas of rebel-held territory.

In addition, AID has reinstated a $3 million request for ongoing humanitarian assistance under the PL 480 food aid program for the fiscal year 1984. Until now AID had failed to submit such a request - a gesture interpreted as signifying the administration's disapproval of the Marxist government of Colonel Mengistu.

In a telephone interview shortly after disclosing new Ethiopian funding to a Senate subcommittee hearing on world hunger, Mr. McPherson insisted that the US was doing what was needed to alleviate the situation. ''It is the Ethiopians and the Soviets who should be doing more,'' he said. Mr. McPherson also suggested that the Ethiopians could release more of their military trucks for distributing relief supplies.

The AID administrator's assessment is at odds with that of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), a volunteer agency through which AID is funneling almost all of its assistance.

According to Ken Hackett, African regional director of CRS, who has just returned from a tour of Ethiopia, the government there earns high praise for its well-organized relief efforts. ''The difference between the Ethiopians' relief work and their counterparts in the rest of Africa is the difference between night and day,'' Mr. Hackett says.

The Ethiopian relief effort has been aided by late rains needed for the November harvest, which will be the next crucial stage in the recovery effort.

At the same time, the problems confronting the Ethiopian government are immense. The government is unable, despite the use of greater military muscle, to dislodge guerrilla forces which for 20 years have been waging a struggle for independence in the northern province of Eritrea.

Meanwhile the drought has hit hardest in the three adjacent provinces of Gondar, Tigre, and Wollo. In Tigre, guerrilla forces of the Tigre People's Liberation Front (TPLF) are thought to occupy as much as 85 percent of the province. Fighting, which has intensified in Tigre Province in recent months, has also spilled over into Gondar and Wollo. As many as 10,000 new refugees are believed to have fled both the drought and the fighting and found refuge in rural refugee encampments scattered in the vicinity of Kassala, Qala 'en Nahl, Gedaref, and El Hawata in eastern Sudan.

Ethiopian refugees have also swollen the slum areas of Khartoum and Port Sudan. The total number of Ethiopian refugees in Sudan is now estimated to be well in excess of 600,000. Tiny Djibouti on the shores of the Red Sea is staggering under the weight of some 35,000 to 40,000 Ethiopian refugees representing some 15 percent of the entire population - a load that the Djibouti government finds intolerable.

Because of the fighting, especially in Tigre, food supplies cannot penetrate key areas. Food that would normally take two days to reach Makale in Tigre, where there are devastating accounts of starvation and malnutrition, now takes two weeks. The food comes in at the port of Massawa, and is then loaded and dispatched to Asmara. From there it is reloaded again and sent on to Adigrat. At Adigrat, a military convoy consisting of about 100 military trucks to ensure its safety takes over and continues the journey to Makale.

Yet some of the food distribution problems begin at the source - at the ports of arrival. While food shipments are moving smoothly enough out of the port of Massawa, there are long tie-ups at Assab (not enough trucks) and Djibouti (only two locomotives).

The combined effects of civil strife, drought, and world recession on one of Africa's largest and poorest countries (per capita income is $140, or 1 percent of the US's) is taking a toll even on those not directly affected by drought or fighting.

According to a relief worker who has been there, the nutritional status of the people in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, is now as bad as that of the Sahel, the desert region of West Africa, ''and getting worse.''

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