Ethiopian refugees make new demand on US relief efforts

The recently announced US airlift of food and supplies to Ethiopian famine victims flooding refugee camps in Sudan illustrates the problems of administering aid to a country torn by civil war.

The emergency action comes in response to a dramatic influx of refugees into Sudan from the Ethiopian provinces of Eritrea and Tigre, plagued by famine and civil war. Since September more than 100,000 refugees have crossed the Sudanese border, and another 50,000 are reported to be en route. Many experts here say there is no end in sight to the migration.

The airlift, announced by the US State Department Thursday, is part of what M. Peter McPherson, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, calls a ''massive'' US response to the famine in Africa. In Ethiopia, government cooperation has largely determined the success of that response.

Says one State Department official: ''Logistical and supply problems are slowly being solved. There's been better cooperation among the donor nations. We're learning from experience.''

But in Ethiopia's northern provinces, where rebels have waged a decade-long struggle against the Marxist government of Addis Ababa, the famine relief effort has been hampered by internal politics. Sources close to the relief effort say the rebel-controlled areas have largely been closed to outside aid by the Ethiopian government.

Although ''the US and other countries have been generous,'' says Yared Berhe, a spokesman for the Relief Society of Tigre, ''over 90 percent of all foreign assistance has been confined to government-controlled areas.'' As a result, he says, between 1,500 and 1,700 people a day are dying in Tigre alone. Large numbers of Tigreans have undertaken the arduous four- to eight-week trek to the refugee camps of eastern Sudan.

So far the Sudanese have kept their doors open to the refugees. But US officials are concerned that Sudan, with a refugee population of over 1 million already, may soon reach the limits of its capacity to absorb newcomers.

Public and private officials in the US say the most effective way to respond to the emergency would be to ship food directly into northern Ethiopia. But because routes into the northern provinces have largely been blocked, new ones are being sought through Sudan.

US officials say Ethiopian authorities have been willing to look the other way as food shipments have crossed the Sudanese border into rebel-held areas. But such shipments have been limited and conducted in semi-secrecy.

''Some aid is getting in, but quietly,'' one State Department spokesman says. US officials express fear that larger, more publicized relief efforts might prompt Ethiopia to close the border to aid shipments from Sudan.

Officials of private relief organizations active in Sudan say the principal problem in getting aid across the border has been the lack of trucks. Two private groups that are the principal conduits into Ethiopia from Sudan - the Eritrean Relief Association and the Relief Society of Tigre - are reported to have less than 100 vehicles to transport supplies to an estimated 4.5 million famine victims in the northern provinces. While the US has provided food to the relief effort, it has not supplied trucks.

''Food is meaningless without trucks,'' says Chris Cartter of Grassroots, a relief organization based in Cambridge, Mass. ''We need hundreds or thousands of trucks, and private resources are simply inadequate. Trucks are the only things that will save lives.''

Those trucks that are in use face risks. On Thursday, State Department officials for the first time confirmed reports of an Ethiopian air attack Dec. 4 along one corridor leading to Sudan, killing 18 refugees and injuring 53 others. Moves to bring the Ethiopian government and rebels together to work out a safe-passage agreement that would grant immunity to refugees in food convoys have been resisted by Ethiopia.

Experts say the region's hunger problem is not confined to the provision of short-term relief. Seeds, tools, manpower, and greater political stability will also be necessary to make spring planting possible. Without a fall harvest, experts say, the famine in northern Ethiopia will extend for at least another year.

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