Ethiopian refugees' rough road to US

''There are so many wars in every part of the country, you cannot keep track of them,'' a slender, balding black man says of his native country, Ethiopia.

The speaker is Asgedom Kiflay, who arrived in Tampa four months ago after an odyssey that took him from Ethiopia, through refugee camps in the Sudan, to the United States.

He is one of 3,000 Ethiopian refugees who have found their way to America during the past year, according to the US State Department. Political and economic conditions are such that Ethiopians accounted for 85 percent of the African refugees allowed in the US this year.

They come from a country that few Americans can easily identify, but the refugees interviewed described a life there that in some cases makes conditions of refugees fleeing Cuba and Haiti seem mild. And more Ethiopians are expected to come to the US because conditions in their country are not likely to improve anytime soon.

Ethiopia has been in turmoil since 1974 when Emperor Haile Selassie's 43-year reign ended in a coup d'etat. In the ensuing power struggle, a Marxist-oriented government, backed by Cuban troops and Soviet military advisers and equipment, seized the government. It fought off invading forces from neighboring Somalia and put down a rebellion in Eritrea Province.

In a wave of terror, Ethiopians suspected of opposing the government were pursued and often gunned down in the streets by soldiers, policemen, and neighborhood committeemen.

Thousands have fled their homeland to refugee camps in the Sudan, Somalia, and tiny Djibouti, where they survive in the sweltering climate with makeshift shelters and little food and water.

A US State Department spokesman says the Ethiopians were fleeing for political, economic, and even ecological reasons because their country also has been plagued by drought.

''Conditions in Ethiopia must be pretty bad for them to flee to surrounding countries,'' says Jim Kelley, a State Department specialist on Ethiopia. ''Economic conditions in countries they are going to are not much better than in Ethiopia.''

''There's no comparison with people fleeing to North America from the Caribbean and South America,'' he says. ''Those leaving Latin American can expect a better life in North America. Those people fleeing Ethiopia are running for their lives.'' (His point about Latin American refugees has been a matter of dispute among US policymakers.)

One refugee, who did not want to be named because he still feared for himself and his large family he had brought to the US, describes how he was forced to flee after government troops harassed his town.

''I was a high school administrator (in the rebellious Province of Eritrea), '' he says. ''The new regime had a plan to send all students over the 11th grade to other parts of the country, and to send the teachers with them. The students refused. The principal was sick and I was in charge.''

''They forced me to sign for this,'' he says. ''It was not my responsibility. I tried to delay, but they forced me to do it right away. Some teachers were imprisoned. One had been killed. I was afraid. I decided this was not a safe place for me to stay.''

By the hundreds of thousands, Ethiopians have fled to neighboring countries that have few resources to care for them. And once the refugees arrived in the Sudan or Djibouti, they say they often were not warmly welcomed.

''They insult you. They say we came to their country to make problems,'' says refugee Tesfay Adam. ''When the Sudan peoples make a demonstration over scarcities, the first targets are the refugees.''

Thousands of refugees were placed in camps run by United Nations relief organizations where they have spent years fending for themselves with the meager supplies that have reached them.

''The place where I was, there was a shortage of food and water,'' says the refugee who asked not to be identified. ''Instead of giving us food, they gave us land and told us to grow our own. But there was not enough land to grow our own food.''

''We had two wells (for a population of more than 5,000), and people and animals drank from them,'' he says. ''Sometimes one would break. Temperatures were normally (about 100 degrees F), and people sometimes had to line up for half a day to get water. Quarrels and fights broke out among them.''

A few were selected to emigrate to the US. Many of them had worked for US firms in the Sudan or had friends or relatives already in America. They carefully worked their way through interviews with the UN High Commission on Refugees and US immigration officials, who try to determine whether the Ethiopians would suffer political, racial, or religious persecution if they returned home, and to study their character and background.

But the refugees interviewed in Tampa say they are pleased just to have a safe place to sleep at night.

''America is the land of democracy. The home of the free,'' says Kassim Adam, Tesfay's brother. ''That's what we like. We are secure here. If we are able to get a job, then life is good.''

Kiflay was even more enthusiastic.

''I'm living. I'm happy,'' he says. ''America has done a tremendous job. Nobody has done so much to bring in people from everywhere and help them stand on their feet. Other nations are not stretching their hands. I am grateful to these people for what they are doing for us.''

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