``I'm just afraid that people walking out of Ethiopia are walking into another hell,'' sighed a representative of a relief agency after a visit to the Ethiopian refugee camps scattered throughout eastern Sudan. ``A large number of people, in bad shape, are coming into a country which normally has a food surplus but where there is no in-country food,'' says Nicolas Morris of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Sudan.
Once touted as the ``breadbasket of Africa,'' Sudan is now waiting for Western food with the rest of its drought-stricken neighbors. Relief agencies are channeling food and supplies into Sudan as fast as they can. But they are overwhelmed by the scope of the situation both in Ethiopia and Sudan.
Mass migration to Sudan from Ethiopia started late last summer, as the fighting escalated and famine tightened its grip on the embattled provinces of Tigre and Eritrea. The Relief Society for Tigre and the Eritrean Relief Association -- humanitarian wings of the antigov-ernment forces fighting in those areas -- began organizing entire communities for the one- to three-month trek to Sudan. Others have been coming on their own, and the International Committee of the Red Cross is trying to distribute food along the way.
At least 150,000 refugees have reached eastern Sudan in the last six months. Officials predict that anywhere from 150,000 to 500,000 more could arrive in 1985. But the thousands of Ethiopians crossing the border each week -- all exhausted and penniless, most malnourished, many seriously ill -- are quickly finding that Sudan is not the promised land.
Remnants of a rainless era line the one highway running from Khartoum through eastern Sudan: carcasses of camels and cows, bare hills furrowed by the beds of dried-up streams, herds of goats grazing on acres of dust. To call this a wasteland may go too far -- but just barely.
Yet as eastern Sudan, which includes the once-fertile Gezira, Kassala, and Red Sea provinces, looks to another dry year, experts here are concerned by the sluggish international response to an impending drought crisis.
As David Shinn, deputy chief of missions at the United States Embassy in Khartoum, says: ``We have had four years of far below normal rainfall in Sudan and we could very well have four more years. But no one is dealing with the long-term problem.''
A British doctor working with refugees in the eastern provinces adds that while much of world attention now is focused on Ethiopia, ``Sudanese are going to be starving to death soon, but no one is doing anything about it.''
One complication has been the Sudan government's curious reluctance to declare a drought emergency. At a press conference last December, Minister of Agriculture Osman Abdel Rahman Akin predicted a decent harvest and declared: ``The situation here is not so severe as many foreign commentators thought it would be.''
Lately that official line is changing amid mounting signs that hundred of thousands more Sudanese will have to cope with the drought in the coming year.
The UNHCR, the Sudan government, and a host of private relief agencies are working around the clock to bring emergency relief to thousands of refugees. But they can't keep up with the stream of new Ethiopian arrivals, which, according the the UNHCR, averages out to nearly 3,000 per day. Nearly all of the 30 camps in the area face critical shortages of food, water, shelter, and sanitation facilities.
Two new Tigrean settlements, Tekl el Bab and Wad Kowai, ran out of food on Dec. 23. Some 60,000 people went hungry and another 6,000 had to be held up at the Ethiopian border because there was nothing to give them. Relief agency officials reported last week that some 60,000 people are now being routed around Kassala because of the security situation and food shortages. Though some emergency shipments of wheat flour are now getting through, refugees throughout the east are receiving reduced rations equivalent to only 1,300 calories per day.
Lack of water is another serious problem, especially at Tekl el Bab, where there is no ground water at all. Drinking water is trucked in from Kassala, some 15 miles to the west. But a shortage of tanker trucks, fuel, and storage tanks makes regular delivery impossible. On average each person in the camp is getting two to four quarts perday, far short of the 4 gallons per day that is recommended for refugee emergency. An average American uses about 25 gallons of water daily.
Shelter and clothing are nearly nonexistenet. The 20,000 to 25,000 people who showed up at Wad Kowai on Dec. 21 are collected in a dry river bed 300 yards longand 500 yards wide. At Tekl el Bab some 34,000 people are huddled into a rocky hillside under acacia bushes -- some draped with banana leaves and goatskins for added protection. Many children have no clothes; everyone else is in rags at best. Medical officers estimate that between 60 and 70 people are dying in the camps each day.
Children are bearing the brunt of this spiraling toll. Some 85 percent of the fatalities at Wad Sherifie are children under age 15; more than half of those are under 5.
The immediate priority of all relief agencies in the area is to get food and water to those who need it most. Some 10,000 metric tons of grain from the World Food Program is scheduled to reach Sudan in early February. But until then, says Mr. Shinn, of the US Embassy, ``Every day is touch and go with the food situation.'' No more than a few day's reserves were on hand at the end of December, and Mr. Morris estimates that the UNHCR will have to come up with 1,500 to 2,000 tons of food to make it thorugh January.
To bridge the gap, UNHCR and the US Agency for International Development are trying to buy food on local markets. The drought here has cut into food stocks and the price of grain has tripled in recent weeks. The US also airlifted 30 tons of dry milk, 5 tons of vegetable oil, and a supply of tents and water tanks to Kassala on Dec 30. More planes will follow soon and the US Department of Defense has sent over a team to determine how large an airlift Kassala airport can handle. Concludes Mr. Shinn: ``We may have to airlift more food, but somehow we'll scrape through the short-term crisis.''
What worries observers more is how Sudan is going to accommodate more Ethiopians over the long term. ``We are completely out of our capacity to absorb refugees,'' warned Mustasa Mohammed Baasher, Cabinet Minister for eastern Sudan. And Morris admits that the new camps cropping up now have ``no future for long-term self-sufficiency.''