SURROUNDED by a moonscape of bone-dry mountain ranges, Claire Bertschinger swoops down on a tiny black figure with a beam of approval. Up into her arms he goes, enormous eyes wide with pleasure, white teeth in a huge smile. A neat wrist-band shows his number: 844B. His head is shaved except for a minuscule patch of hair by which, his mother believes, God's hand will hoist him to heaven should he die.

''This,'' Claire says, ''is Kiros. When he came in here two months ago he was so starved that he was like a skeleton. His mother kept hitting him and he kept asking her why.

''Today,'' she says, hugging him, ''he has filled out after emergency feeding. His eyes are better. And look - see this bracelet made of grass? His mother made it for him. Her attitude toward him has completely changed.''

This is what emergency food relief should be all about: fighting famine and drought with compassion, generosity, and dedication.

Ethiopia's needs are the most urgent in all of Africa. They are complicated by a government that is fighting a civil war in this and other regions, and by a limited capacity to absorb aid: too few trucks, too few planes, too few roads.The West finally responded - and Claire Bertschinger, young, blonde, and committed, is at the end of the aid chain, working to alleviate suffering in one parched corner of Ethiopia, halfway between Addis and the Red Sea. She is typical of many other relief workers here and around Africa. She is also the first to agree that the fundamental hunger here goes deeper than emergency aid, which can meet only part of the need.

The sun beats down from a hard blue sky with not a single wisp of cloud in sight. Behind Claire, inhospitable stony ground stretches away to metallic mountains. The long-term hunger is for answers to questions like these: Can such soil be brought back to life with new seeds, new dams, new livestock, new agricultural policies, new roads, new trucks, new hope? How can other African nations best be helped to feed themselves over the long haul?

Meanwhile . . . Kiros is finally handed back to his mother. He is one of the success stories, fed by Canadian and American grain flown in by American and European transport planes from the port of Assab. If the aid stops, thousands like Kiros are at risk.

Claire drives to another shelter. It is behind the Makele political school, which is adorned with pictures of Lenin. A bare slope is covered by a human carpet of nomadic Muslim Afaris. As Claire moves through it, person after person lights up, and rises to greet her. It is like watching a light being turned on. Their children were or are still in her feeding center. They had been desperately malnourished. Now they are improved.

One mother throws herself at Claire's feet and kisses them. Another rushes up and kisses her repeatedly on both cheeks. Small children pull at her red and white skirt.

An English-born, half-Swiss, bilingual contract nurse with the International Committee of the Red Cross, Claire serves gladly - but worries about the long-term, too. She frets constantly that, although she is helping save 500 children at a time, even that effort reaches only a fraction of the 50,000 or so people who have dragged wearily into Makele in recent months. Hundreds more come every day.

Desperate mothers hold out babies to her. Some sit in the middle of the road hoping to make her stop as she drives a Red Cross truck through dusty Makele. Others leave their babies in the path of the vehicle and run away.

Claire is a veteran of other trouble spots. She spent nine months on the front line between Christian and Druze militias in the Shouf mountains of Lebanon. Yet for her, Ethiopia is unique.

''Never,'' she says thoughtfully, ''have I ever experienced anything like the scale of the need here. How do you choose who comes into the shelter? You check the weight and height of the under-fives. If the ratio is less than 75 percent, we take them until it goes back over 80 percent. Some children we see are down to 60 percent. But there are so many . . . so many. . . .''

At 7 a.m., 11 a.m., and 3 p.m. she and a Swiss colleague, Greta Weichlinger, feed their 500 children on high-protein milk and bread or rice, and specially made biscuits.

In the Afari camp, a tall tribesman appoints himself her bodyguard, waving the crowds away with a long stick. His name, he says, is Muhammad Norissa.

Because one of his children is being fed by the Red Cross, the whole family benefits: It gets extra rations each month (10 kilos of grain, 3 kilos of beans, and 2 tins of butter oil) to supplement government emergency rations. Until an international airlift began to reach Makele, those government rations per head per month had sunk to only 5 kilos. The families of Red Cross children also get soap, and blankets to ward off the nighttime cold.

Muhammad says his cows and goats died in the drought which has lasted four years, and that ''reactionaries'' (Tigrean secessionist guerrillas) took his camels. He waited for six months to enter the camp here and he has been in it for two months.

The people don't go back to their distant villages. They are either too weak, or they don't get enough government grain to last more than a few days, or there is no home to which to return. Many have broken down the mud walls of their homes to sell the wooden supports for cash.

In the Sahel region of West Africa, in Sudan, in Somalia, in northern Kenya, in parts of Zimbabwe, in Mozambique, the story is repeated, if on a smaller scale. . . .

As for Claire, she is back on the job at 7 a.m. the next day, holding a baby and smiling at its mother. She turns and says, ''You just have to love them. ''

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