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Reports of rain lure Ethiopian refugees back to land that might not support them

By Edward GirardetSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 16, 1985



Khartoum, Sudan

Thousands of Tigrean refugees, in a mass exodus from the border camps of eastern Sudan, have been spontaneously returning to Ethiopia. International relief officials fear the exodus could result in a march of self-destruction. Encouraged by the recent rains in Tigre Province in Ethiopia, as many as 50,000 refugees from major camps at Wad Kowli, Sefawa, and Fau in Kassala Province have left or have demonstrated their intention to trek back to their villages in the hope of planting new crops.

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Many, notably children and ailing adults, are not expected to survive the physical strain of a four-to-six-week overland journey. Nor will they be in a position to sustain themselves; severe food shortages will continue until the expected harvest in late September.

For the relief organizations working at the camps, including Poul Hartling, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, the exodus presents a dilemma.

``Even if we consider it disastrous, it is a purely voluntary repatriation decided by the people themselves,'' an official in the high commissioner's office said. ``There is really nothing we can do except try to dissuade them.''

Earlier this year, the guerrilla-run Relief Society of Tigre (REST), announced plans for the organized return of a basic work force of young men to prepare the 1985 cultivation. According to Western agencies involved in cross-border humanitarian assistance, REST has the capacity to furnish the men but not their wives and children -- with enough tools, seeds, oxen, and food to last until the harvest.

But with the start of the wet season in late April whole families simply packed up their meager belongings and headed home. Despite REST's efforts to discourage them, the women say they do not want to be separated from their men, even at the risk of losing their children. When it became apparent that they would go, REST reluctantly agreed to supervise the departures, issuing limited rations.

The exodus is thought to represent roughly one-third of the Tigreans who have arrived in Sudan over the past six months. But in camps recently visited by this correspondent, those who have chosen to remain include few able young men.

At the same time, between 500 and 1,500 Tigreans are still fleeing Ethiopia every day because of war and famine conditions, resulting in the tragic irony of new arrivals passing by those returning along the same road.

The return of people to Tigre is expected to worsen the situation in that rebel-held area, where there is already a desperate need for more food.

Although cross-border food distribution from Sudan to Tigre has discreetly doubled since early this year, it still represents a mere 1,600 tons for an estimated 3 million affected people.

``More aid has just got to be brought in,'' said Dan Connell of the Boston-based relief organization Grassroots International.

He added, ``It does not matter whether it is cross-border or from the government [Ethiopian] side. This also means providing safe passage for aid to the affected areas without a military presence as is now the case in Ethiopia.''