Hungry and homeless, some 30,000 people have trudged for days from deserted villages and blighted fields to sit, lie, and camp on a vast open plain on the outskirts of this town, which has become a symbol around the world of the worst African drought in modern history.
Hundreds more arrive every day from Tigre Province. But only those families with children under five years of age who are greatly underweight are admitted to the lower end of the camp, where a Save the Children (UK) emergency feeding center ministers up to six meals a day to about 5,000 children and mothers in row after row of tents and rough shelters consisting of plastic sheets over holes in the ground.
Save the Children is feeding another 4,000 to 5,000 women and children in the central marketplace of Korem itself, where this correspondent watched 500 tiny children line up in seven rows in a big green tent, gulping down a high-protein milk drink and eating biscuits in the first of six meals that day.
Ethiopian officials say that 206,000 hungry people have registered for a monthly distribution of rations in Korem and the surrounding district. Yet fewer than 40,000 are being fed today. ''Who knows where the rest are,'' says one official. ''People come in and they go out and we don't know what's happening.''
The need for food, clothing, medical, and other supplies is more urgent than ever, government and Western officials agree. The emergency will continue, they say, at least until the next main harvest is due in November 1985.
Korem is a symbol but it is by no means unique.
Drought and famine, affecting as many as 10 million people, are spreading across this strategic country on the Horn of Africa.
The government has just escalated two estimates: It says Ethiopia's population has jumped to 42 million and that the number of people registering for emergency food has gone from 6.4 million to 7.3 million. This eclipses in scale previous famines in Biafra and in the Sahel region.
Western relief agencies say even the 7.3 million figure omits guerrillas in Eritrea and Tigre provinces and everyone else too weak to leave their villages where land has turned to dust after having been plowed four times this year in desperate efforts to survive. Livestock is dying or being slaughtered for food.
More and more relief workers here, including government officials, now accept an estimate that between January and December of this year 900,000 will have died because of the famine.
In the main Korem camp, the death toll has jumped from 15 per month last January, to 1,549 in September and an estimated 1,800 in October, according to a local government official. The figure has been pushed upward by the flood of newcomers and by the weather which, at 5,000 ft. above sea level, has turned sharply cold at night.
Korem, 185 miles north of the capital city of Addis Ababa, is well known because British television crews have taken film here that has been seen around the world. But 13 miles away at the foot of a mountain is the town of Alamata. There, 7,000 people sit in a field outside an emergency feeding center run by World Vision.
''Alamata could be the next Korem,'' says World Vision worker David Ward. ''The people are pouring in.''
Further north in Makale between 40,000 and 50,000 people surround 11 feeding stations.
Relief work is complicated by the long-running guerrilla war between the Soviet-backed Addis Ababa government and the secessionist guerrillas in the Korem-Alamata-Kobo-Lalibella-Makele region.
I listened to four young white Army officers talking in Russian in a hotel on Korem's main street. French doctors working in Korem said the officers had been at the hotel for two days, advising Ethiopian troops in a large Army camp opposite. A Soviet-made armored personnel carrier turned into the gate of the camp the next morning.
There is some good news to report. The sudden awakening of concern in the US, Canada, Western Europe, Australia, and elsewhere has produced new shiploads of food bound for the ports of Massawa and Assab. Even the Soviet Union, which has supplied more than $2 billion worth of arms to Addis Ababa since 1979, has just promised, not food, but planes, helicopters, and trucks.
After a delay of 24 hours seven Royal Air Force C-130 Hercules transport planes were to fly in from Britain Nov. 3 to set up a base camp at Assab. Two will remain to carry grain to hard-hit Axum and Makale.
Yet the sheer explosion of aid is swamping the Ethiopian government, Western embassies, and private agencies here.
A working group of donor nations and organizations recommended Nov. 1 that Addis Ababa and donors urgently coordinate the new aid together with port, truck , airport, and administrative procedures. The working group warned that new food aid shipments could collide with 75,000 tons of fertilizer due at Assab from December and 100,000 tons of commercial food imports from mid-November.