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Motives are questioned in plan to resettle Ethiopians

By Edward GirardetSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 26, 1984

Kembolcha, Ethiopia

Lording over what is both the town's soccer field and parade ground, the white faces of Marx, Engels, and Lenin stand out in stark contrast to the dark groups of farmers and their families crouched in the dust.

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The 2,000 men, women, and children, many worn and emaciated, listen with resignation to the flurried speech of a senior member of Ethiopia's new Workers' Party. Flanked by armed guards and local functionaries, the official exhorts them to a new life under the revolution.

With 12 of the country's 14 regions affected by drought, these farmers from Wollo Province are among the first to take part in the government's mass resettlement program. Inhabitants of the most severely stricken provinces in the north are being moved to more fertile, less populated parts hundreds of miles to the south.

The farmers clap politely when the party member has finished. For the benefit of a television crew, they even venture a unison of hip, hip, hurrays. Yet though their former homelands lie barren, the result of little or no rain over the past four years, their attitude toward leaving for a possibly better future seems more one of listless fatalism than of joy.

(Ironically, in the past two weeks there have been scattered thunderstorms in some of the drought-affected areas. But they came too late for this year's harvest and too early for next year's. The rain made life for refugees living outside particularly difficult, adding mud and very cold nights to already squalid conditions.)

Ever since the regime of Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam began shuttling drought victims in mid-November by trucks, buses, and aircraft to the southwestern provinces of Ilubabor, Kefa, and Gamo-Gofa, Ethiopia's ambitious resettlement program has met with varied reactions. Government opponents, notably the Eritrean and Tigrean peoples' liberation fronts (EPLF and TPLF), have been particularly antagonistic because of the operation's political overtones.

Resettlement figures vary, but the most-quoted target is 250,000 every year for the next 10 years. International development officials, however, doubt that the Ethiopian administration is logistically capable of relocating such large numbers. And while some say that a certain degree of properly planned resettlement makes sense, they question government motives.

The authorities will not only have to provide proper agricultural facilities and training, the officials say, but also deal with integrating outsiders in areas with different customs, climate, and language. Furthermore, unless the program receives sufficient financial and technical aid, its chances of success are limited.

Resettlement projects started last year for 30,000 repatriated refugees from Djibouti seem to be working, but these have benefited from substantial funding (

Efforts in 1978 to resettle drought victims largely failed. UN officials maintain that little is known about how many were actually resettled and what has happened to them since. ''What we do know is that projects suffered badly from lack of preparation. Some of the farmers also tried to return home illegally,'' says one European agricultural specialist.

According to the Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Committee, large-scale resettlement is a necessary measure. In contrast to the earlier schemes, the RRC insists, present efforts are being properly planned and are totally voluntary.