MASSAWA, ETHIOPIA — WHEN the rebel Eritrean People's Liberation Front captured the port of Massawa from the Ethiopian Army three months ago, international aid officials warned that the takeover jeopardized relief supplies to drought victims in government-held territory. But EPLF rebels say that the port is usable, and that they have invited the UN to renew relief activities there. That was two months ago - and so far, the UN has not officially responded.
Nonetheless, rebel relief officials in Eritrea insist they can avert disaster.
``We hope we can work out an agreement with the Ethiopians to use Massawa, but we don't count on it,'' says Eritrean Relief Agency (ERA) field coordinator Gebremichael Menghistu, ``so the cross-border operation is very critical and needs to be supported.''
The ERA has so far relied on food sent across Eritrea's border from Sudan by ``Emergency Relief Desk,'' a consortium of international organizations based in Khartoum. By the end of April, ERA had received 70,000 tons of food.
``If that continues, we are hopeful,'' Mr. Menghistu adds. ``People are not yet desperate. There have been no epidemic outbreaks, no displaced people, no deaths from starvation and no serious malnourishment.'' For a region historically wracked with drought, that is success, he says.
The last big famine that swept through Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1984-85 left 1 million dead.
Most of Massawa's 35,000 people have left town. Many find safety from the air raids by spending daylight hours hidden in culverts and under bridges as far as 12 miles away. At night, EPLF and ERA workers supply them from food and water trucks that ply the main roads.
But the famine has barely begun, and there are no stocks of food inside Eritrea or Sudan. The supply is used as soon as it is carried across the border. The ERA says it needs at least 300,000 tons a month until mid-July, when the rains begin. From then on, during the ``hungry months'' until November, food convoys work at half their usual capacity.
The United States has contributed 165,000 tons of food to both sides of the conflict, and will cover ``one-third of the food needs,'' says Herman Cohen, US assistant secretary of state for Africa.
``The coming months are very critical for us - the worst is coming,'' says Menghistu. ``In terms of the number of people affected and degree of crop failure, this famine is as bad or worse than 1984-85. In terms of the ERA's ability, the present situation is much better.''
When disaster struck in 1984, the ERA owned nine trucks and relied on the EPLF's captured Soviet trucks. Today they run a fleet of 188 trucks. The flow of food on the roads seems constant.
In 1984, the ERA's work was limited to small areas under EPLF control; now those have expanded. This year the ERA and Rest, the relief organization of the neighboring Tigr'ean rebels, will try to feed 3.5 million people in Eritrea and Tigr'e.
The government will feed half a million; though it claims to help 1.5 million, says a Western diplomat in Khartoum.
The ERA's arms are long and efficient. Donkeys and camels only a few kilometers behind the front lines carry food into the hinterland, under the cover of darkness. Relief officials say the rebels can account for every bag given to them.
After last year's good harvest, the condition of the population is better than in 1984, when Ethiopians suffered from successive years of drought, says the diplomat. ``By this time in 1984 people were already moving. We're not getting the refugee influx yet, and we don't expect it to come,'' he says.
Nowhere in Eritrea does a visitor come across starving people, whose pictures shocked the world into action in 1984.
``We're in a more difficult situation in one sense,'' says the diplomat. There aren't the same graphic images of starving people to show as before, and this time, ``we are competing with Eastern Europe for aid.''
The rebels' relief work is keeping people in their villages and out of camps: ``The anticipation is that the cross-border operation exists - the people are not cracking, they've seen ERA and Rest bring in food,'' says an observer who works closely with the Emergency Relief Desk.
With the fate of Massawa still undecided, the cross-border link with Sudan is the only route open for food relief in rebel areas.
``The cross-border operation used to be a very difficult uphill fight,'' says the ERA's Menghistu, because the Ethiopian government frowned on relief agencies that wanted to provide help to both sides of the conflict.
Nevertheless, the Ethiopian authorities continue to bomb Massawa and threaten to destroy humanitarian aid shipments.
``The government ... has no intention of averting the famine situation. They will go on blaming the EPLF for obstructing their relief operation by capturing Massawa,'' says EPLF Secretary-General Isias Afeworki.
What will happen if not enough food comes across the border from Sudan?
``Then we will have all the consequences of famine,'' says Menghistu. ``The people are totally dependent on us.''