Motives are questioned in plan to resettle Ethiopians

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Although resettlement is cheaper than drilling wells or terracing in the badly affected areas, there is concern in relief circles that the government is deliberately abandoning some northern sectors out of political expedience. So far, the United States, West Germany, Italy, and other Western nations have not provided assistance for relocating destitute farmers.

Civil war has for years if not decades enveloped large parts of Ethiopia's worst-hit drought regions: Eritrea, Tigre, Wollo, and Gondar.

Most resettlement candidates are from the rebel-controlled rural areas, but have headed for government-held towns in search of food.

Government plans have thus prompted the EPLF, the TPLF, and other rebel groups to accuse the Mengistu regime of trying to drain guerrilla areas of popular support. They also claim that emergency food supplies are being deliberately withheld from the interior to force people into accepting resettlement in order to survive.

It is difficult to verify such allegations. Government restrictions on Western journalists are tight; even international relief officials have little say in supply distribution. Recently returned Westerners from guerrilla zones say that hardly any food is filtering through. Certain US and European voluntary relief agencies also have accused the government of politically motivated obstruction of the relief effort with Western governments standing idly by.

A number of drought victims interviewed by this correspondent at Korem, Bati, Kobo, and other food distribution centers in Wollo last month said they are not averse to resettling. But they seem to have little choice in the matter.

''If we stay here or return to our villages, we will die. There is no food, no rain, and too much fighting,'' said Belai Atti, who lives with her five children and 20 other people under a plastic tent at Korem. ''If there is food in the south as the government has promised us, then we will leave.''

Others claim that they do not want to resettle, but that the ''soldiers are forcing people into the buses.'' Some young men have also expressed fears of being conscripted into the Army.

At Harbu, south of Kembolcha, where 3,000-odd drought victims are struggling to survive in an open transit camp guarded by militiamen, a Tigrean agricultural specialist quietly explains that the military was purposely withholding food and medication. ''With conditions so bad here, who would want to stay?'' he asks.

At Korem, by the end of November only 27,000 out of the estimated 50,000 to 60,000 displaced persons were receiving regular food handouts, despite available cereal stocks, or sleeping in shelters, according to representatives of the French Medecins Sans Frontieres and the British Save the Children fund.

Government officials, however, say this is only because there is not enough food to go around. Lack of rain is only one reason for the famine in these northern areas. War, overpopulation, deforestation, overgrazing, archaic farming methods, and disastrous agricultural policies providing little incentive for peasant farmers have all exacerbated the drought.

But few international development specialists feel that the land is entirely lost. ''Much can be done to prevent further erosion and allow those who stay a future,'' said a European representative of the UN Development Program in Addis Ababa.

Besides improved farming methods, this includes more reforestation, terracing , irrigation, short-cycle crops, and restricted grazing. But most development officials agree that no long-term projects can begin until the military conflicts are resolved.

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