Famine and politics

AS horrifying as the news of the famine in Ethiopia has been during the past several weeks, the full story has not yet come out. Starvation is being used as a political weapon against hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians.

Drought is only part of the problem. Wars between nationalist guerrillas and the central government divide the worst-affected areas into entirely separate territories with distinct and unconnected emergency relief operations.

The Ethiopian government is covering up the fact that it lacks access to the starving in war-affected areas. Most of the international humanitarian aid community is complicit in this cover-up by remaining silent about it.

The most urgent need is to reach a cease-fire. Both opposition movements in the region have recently issued statements expressing a willingness to negotiate terms. Only the Ethiopian government has so far refused.

Today, the facts are these:

* The cumulative effects of a five-year drought in Eritrea and the northern provinces of Tigre, Wollo, and Gondar threaten the lives of between 4 and 6 million people.

* As much as 80 percent of the region is under guerrilla control, including almost the entire countryside where the famine is most severe.

* Throughout these drought-affected areas government control is restricted to a handful of major towns, including Korem and Makalle, which have been the sites of media coverage of the famine to date.

* Between 60 and 80 percent of the starving are in rural areas that government-sponsored relief operations do not reach. This has been repeatedly documented by relief workers on both sides of the conflicts, but the Ethiopian government consistently denies it is so, to avoid the political implications of its extensive loss of territorial control.

Parallel relief operations to the opposition-controlled areas, under way for more than five years, are not receiving the attention - and the support - necessary to save lives. Based in neighboring Sudan, they involve badly underfinanced efforts by a small number of United States, Canadian, and European church and nonchurch agencies to truck food and other supplies to the hungry where they live.

These donor agencies work through the Eritrean Relief Association and the Relief Society of Tigre, which have provided access to the most remote famine areas, using donkey and camel caravans when trucks were unable to get through.

Because of the cover-up, however, the amount of aid to these areas is less than 5 percent of what arrives in government-held feeding stations. As a direct result, the death rate is climbing daily.

As in the early 1970s, United Nations agencies, mandated to work only with governments, neither act independently to channel aid to the starving in the contested areas nor do they make any public statements to contradict Ethiopian government descriptions of the crisis. Most private aid agencies are also silent about this, claiming they wish to avoid jeopardizing operations they may have on the government side.

Needed now is immediate and full disclosure of the political dimensions of this crisis by aid agencies, governments, UN organizations, and news media. Such action would make the following steps possible:

* A temporary cease-fire to permit the safe passage of relief supplies under neutral international supervision to all the hungry across the battle lines by airlift and truck.

* An even distribution of aid to famine victims wherever they are.

* Coordination among public and private agencies to ensure that aid is not misused and that this rescue operation does not become a competition for media attention (and funds) or an anarchic tragedy in its own right.

The time has long since passed to call a halt to the political manipulation of this terrible human tragedy. All those in a position to foster peace must now step forward - there simply is no longer any excuse to stay quiet.

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