At first sight, it is hard to believe that 20,000 human beings have sought refuge in this barren frontier region of baking sands and desolate mountains. But then you see them, in growing numbers, the victims of famine and war in Ethiopia.
Groups of men, women, and children crouch or lie under the paltry shade of palm-leaf mats and pieces of canvas strung out over the flat-topped thorn bushes. Others have crept among the boulders and niches of a jebel, a 1,000-foot-high outcrop of desert rock, in an attempt to ward off the fierce midday sun.
As you move past the wood fires with women preparing bread or boiling lentils from their meager rations, you are followed by the plaintive wailing of hungry, often sick, children. Two men help carry a young woman, too weak to walk. A stony graveyard stands nearby.
Since early July, 1984, some 170,000 refugees, mainly from Tigre and Eritrea, have entered Sudan. Most of them walk five, six, even eight weeks. Between 3,000 and 4,000 continue to trudge across the border every day.
They are forced to walk at night because of the heat and to avoid Ethiopia air attacks which, the Tigreans claim, are being deliberately directed against refugee columns. Foreign medical teams have reported receiving scores of wounded from these assualts.
For Sudan, which is trying to grapple with its own dire problems of drought and economic degradation, this new influx represents an additional burden. Until the emergency, more than 1 million refugees, including 775,000 Ethiopians, were already living in this northeast African country.
The Tekl el Bab camp is being dismantled as quickly as possible by relief officials because of its poor location. Water must be trucked in and is limited to two or three liters a day per person, hardly enough to cook or drink. More than 10,000 of its original 30,000 squatters have been transferred to better quarters near El Fau, some 180 miles from the Ethiopian border and one of half a dozen reception centers set up by the Sudanese government.
But the story is much the same in all of them.
Government food distribution is inadequate and slow, while health facilities are only beginning to come to grips with a problem proportionally as disastrous as in Ethiopia. Following a ``further deterioriation'' of the refugee situation in Sudan, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) launched its fourth appeal for more food since last Nov. 8.
``At the moment, our biggest problem is finding enough food to feed everyone,'' said Nick Morris, head of the UNHCR office in Khartoum.
The shortages are also severely affecting health conditions. ``As it is, the people arrive in poor shape, but they get even worse, once they are here,'' said Jean-Louis Monci`ere in the French voluntary agency M'edecins Sans Fronti`eres.
According to a nutritional survey being carried out by the UNHCR, malnutrion among children is rampant. The great majority of under-five-year-olds are well below their normal ``weight for height'' -- many of them less than 70 and even 60 percent. At El Fau alone, 50 children died over a three-day period.
To tide over emergency needs until the first ships start coming in at Port Sudan, sup- plementary food, tents, blankets, and other supplies are being flown into Kassala and Khartoum by the UNHCR, the Swedish International Development Agency, and the United States Air Force.
The US State Department, too, has dispatched a special disaster assessment team to Sudan's eastern region to gauge relief requirements over the months ahead. One American technician has already begun installing facilities along the Atbara River to supply the camp at Wad Kowai (60,000 new arrivals since late November and more coming) with treated drinking water.
To the dismay of Sudan there is no indication that the flow of these refugees will slow down. Most refugees say they are fleeing both drought and war.
``The [Ethiopian] government keeps bombing our villages because they think the EPLF [Eritrean People's Liberation Front] are in the area,'' said Ismail Abdullah, a Muslim Eritrean who had just ridden in with his family by camel from Tessenai, Ethiopia to Wad Sherifie camp.
Based on reliable reports from the interior, relief officials are preparing to receive another 60,000 to 80,000 by the end of January followed by a similar number in February. This could bring the total figure of new arrivals to 300,000. Some forecast up to a half million by mid-1985.
These influxes further accentuate the predicament of civilians inside Ethiopia in areas not controlled by Addis Ababa. In particular, they underline the general failure of international relief efforts, whether through food distribution centers run by the Ethiopian government or via Sudan, to reach all famine victims. There are also strong allegations that people seeking relief at the Ethiopian feeding centers have been turned back, beaten, and even killed on suspicion of supporting the liberation fronts.
``These people have no alternative but to go to Sudan,'' said Asseta Mamo, a director of the Relief Society of Tigre (REST), the humanitarian wing of the Tigrean People's Liberation Front.
As in Ethiopia, lack of rain in eastern Sudan has resulted in disastrous harvests of dura (sorghum) with some regions producing only 5 percent of expected yields. Apart from 600,000 affected Sudanese, the drought has wreaked havoc among the UNHCR's previously established refugee programs.
Prior to the emergency, some 128,000 Ethiopian refugees had attained partial or total self-sufficiency in special wage-earning and agricultural settlements. Today, however, food assistance must be provided to virtually all the old and new refugees.
``All that we have done over the past 15 years has been wiped out,'' said UNHCR's Michel Barton. ``Aside from the schools and administrative buildings, we are back to square one.''