Why the orphans are cheering

The two tired Ethiopian soldiers looked at each other and shrugged. It had not been an easy day. For three hours they had been trying to organize more than 5,000 children: lining the toddlers up, getting them to practice the new songs for their performance, tucking and retucking new white blouses in blue skirts or trousers, wiping noses, distributing flags and teaching them when to use them, breaking up playful skirmishes, and, above all, getting them to listen.

It was not exactly the kindly old men's normal line of duty.

And then it all fell into place.

When the Ethiopian leader, Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, arrived, the songs of praise, the thousands of miniature flags waved by thousands of miniature hands, the excitement, the smiles that greeted him, almost seemed spontaneous.

But there was indeed something worth celebrating. Mengistu had come to the bush village of Zway to open the first "revolutionary resettlement center," otherwise known as an orphanage. Just a few weeks earlier, most of the children here had been beggars and street urchins, living off the meager rejects of one of the world's poorest countries.

Their new home, new clothes, and regular meals marked a turning point in their lives -- perhaps also symbolizing an important turning point for Ethiopia.

For the first five years after the military coup d'etat brought down Haile Selassie's empire in 1974, Ethiopia had been a troubled nation.

Leadership feuds and purges delayed long-promised changes. Rivalry between pro-Moscow and pro-Peking factions triggered 18 months of nasty street violence in which thousands were killed. And guerrilla wars on three fronts diverted attention and funds from the desperate problems of 30 million people, most of whom were living in Dark Age poverty.

Diplomats who were in Ethiopia during that time say the country was in a state of limbo. The military leaders of the coup had immediately dismantled the infrastructure that had been controlled -- colorfully but corruptly -- by Selassie's network of friends and relatives. However, they failed to install new institutions to take over.

But now, six years after the coup, there are strong indications that a revolution had, indeed, been set in motion. Dramatic moves were changing the lives of millions.

The government has begun carrying out several new programs that are having an important effect on the average Ethiopian -- the literacy campaign, for instance.

Abebech Emmayu is a grandmother of six. Three times a week she attends a reading class at a former Swedish mission school. Sitting at an undersize desk, she repeats the names of the squiggles that are the Amharic alphabet as her young teacher points out letters on the board. Then she spends an hour practicing alone in class, working her way through a book that does not make much sense to her yet. She cannot make out the words; she is still working on the letters.

The reading campaign, begun just over a year ago, has already won a United Nations award. During the days of the empire, 9 out of 10 could not read. Now, some 5.4 million Ethiopians -- from children to great-grandparents -- are enrolled in a reading, writing, and simple arithmetic program.

In the mountainous north, classes are held outside under trees. Students make their "ink" from charcoal or plants. Paper is the underside of bark.

In the southern wasteland, pens are reeds, and writing is done on the sand.

The Education Ministry boasts that there are also classes in all jails, since prisoners "must be included in the effort to develop a well-rounded national socialist personality." Visitors are not allowed to see the prison classrooms, however.

There are other changes. Red Cross officials say Ethiopians are eating better. This can be important politically -- it was failure to act on the 1973 famine and the issue of land reform that lead to the empire's collapse.

This is in part due to new cooperatives, where basic essentials are cheaper for the poor. It is also the result of pocketbook economics: Ethiopians still make only an average of about $100 (US) a year, but now they get to keep more of it, since the bulk of their income no longer goes to the government or feudal landlords of the property-rich Coptic Church.

But more revealing about the direction the revolution is taking is the new political system, the radical organization of neighborhood governments known as "kebeles."

Kebele 1-08 in Addis Ababa is a showcase: The complex of buildings provides a playground for children, a cheap cafeteria for workers, and for all dwellers in the capital's plumbingless shanties, public baths where they can clean up once a week for 62 cents (US).

Each kebele also has administrative responsibilities for its section of blocks -- deciding minor judicial disputes, policing the area, collecting rents, etc.

There is no subtlety about the ideology of the kebele. The high fences around it display posters of Marx, Lenin, and Engels. Meeting hall walls are painted with pictures of the peasant masses, hoes on shoulders, marching under hammer-and-sickle flags. In some parts of the world a kebele would be labeled a "cell."

Critics claim that while membership is technically open to all, only a tested socialist can play a role in the kebele's central committee. And policing the blocks, they charge, often amounts to spying on residents.

For all its flaws, Western diplomats say that under the kebele system Ethiopia's largely peasant population gets a better deal than it did under Haile Selassie, when only property holders could be on the city council. And since only nobility and the influential Coptic Church held property, the majority had no political voice.

Colonel Mengistu has also designed the framework for the first political party: COPWE, or the "Commission for Organizing the Party of Workers in Ethiopia ," was formed last December and is slowly opening up to public membership. And the first unions are taking hold, also under revolutionary banners such as the "All Ethiopian Peasants' Organization."

Some Western governments are concerned that Ethiopia is "settling down" into becoming one of the most left-wing of African states. They point to the telltale signs of socialism: the use of the word "comrade," the street corner billboards depicting key figures in communist history, large red communist symbols painted on windows at the airport, obstructing the view.

Of even greater concern is the presence of up to 17,000 Cuban troops, 1,000 Soviet military advisors, and almost $2 billion worth of Soviet weapons and warplanes, all used to support the Ethiopian military against guerrilla groups operating in the northern provinces of Eritrea and Tigray and in the southern Ogaden region.

The conflicts perhaps ironically represent the gravest problem that had also troubled Selassie: how to hold together a nation torn by ethnic and religious divisions, and formed by artificial boundaries.

There is a general feeling among diplomats and observers in the capital that if there was only one dispute Mengistu would be willing to compromise, but that he cannot afford to concede to all three guerrilla movements, since the provinces together amount to almost one-third of his country.

The Islamic nationalist groups in Eritrea and the Ogaden want to secede from the dominance of Christian-oriented Amharics, while insurgents in Tigray want self-rule. One Ethiopian Cabinet official hinted that the government was considering local autonomy as a solution. But as in other African conflicts, that could be too little, too late.

The spending of men and money on the wars is the chief deterrent to other changes, although most Ethiopians do not appear to recognize this. There is little mention of the wars by officials or in the state-controlled news media.

However, the hint of a willingness to compromise reflects what insiders say is Mengistu's overriding desire to end the conflicts. And despite the Western concern about Ethiopia's alliance with the Eastern bloc, officials at the highest level repeatedly and vehemently claim that Mengistu is tired of being considered a Soviet puppet. A typical proud Ethiopian, he reportedly feels that his nation should instead be an example of an independent brand of African socialism and a leader in the nonaligned movement.

"Foreign involvement is a temporary necessity," one Cabinet official said in private. "Look at our history. That should prove to you that we are Ethiopians first and Marxists second. . . .

"We look poor, but we have something rich, an authentic culture," the official explained.

For the time being, the help from outside is likely to stay and defense to take the biggest chunk out of the budget. But insiders say that in his struggle to bring the East African nation into the 20th century Mengistu would like to be able to call more on the West and its technology.

Mengistu is obviously not averse to the odder manifestations of Western luxury. During the sixth anniversary celebrations, he escorted the Hungarian President to a parade in a red Eldorado Cadillac convertible -- with the top down.

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