Ethiopia's dissident northern province of Tigre faces mass starvation this summer unless the international community overcomes the current political obstacles blocking a major relief operation. ``If nothing is done immediately, for many it will simply be too late,'' says a West European relief coordinator recently returned from a month-long survey of central Tigre for a British aid agency.
``It is far worse than anything we have seen so far. That's the reality.''
Both he and other Western relief sources say that some 1.2 million farmers in central and eastern Tigre are expected to run out of food within seven months. For most families, the next possible harvest, depending on rain, is in October.
In the meantime, these sources warn, mass starvation is almost certain unless ways can be found to channel food to these areas.
In March, M. Peter McPherson, director of the United States Agency for International Development (AID), discussed with Sudanese officials Washington's intention to support a secret program that would funnel food into rebel-held areas of Tigre and Eri-AIDAID trea from neighboring countries. But the proposed program, estimated at 100,000 tons, has yet to materialize.
[AID officials in Washington would not comment publicly on the cross-border program.]
Only in Eritrea are substantial amounts of food relief reportedly being trucked across the frontier from Sudan's Red Sea province.
Independent observers monitoring cross-border relief are puzzled by the American delay.
They note that AID had been fully alerted last autumn to Tigre's deteriorating condition and had expressed willingness to help.
US officials in Khartoum are tight-lipped about their plans. It is not clear whether the lack of response is part of a deliberate change in US policy or simply bureaucratic confusion.
One voluntary agency said that an initial agreement by AID to provide 250 trucks for cross-border food relief operations was suddenly and unexpectedly reduced to 70.
Some relief sources maintain that, while food and gasoline stocks are available, AID has not found a ``suitable independent organization with the necessary logistics and expertise to coordinate such a massive operation.''
CARE, the New York-based voluntary aid organization, reportedly had been approached originally but backed off because of security and logistical problems in Tigre.
Other observers suggest the US may also be moving carefully in the wake of the overthrow of former Sudanese President Jaafar Nimeiry.
Still others argue that it is the fear of Ethiopian attacks against supply convoys. Another possibility is that the US wants West European governments to become involved, thus making the relief effort seem less like a purely US operation.
But the Europeans, notably the European Community countries, are reluctant to make any moves that would violate the Lom'e Convention, which requires signatories not to intervene in the internal affairs of another member state, in this case Ethiopia.
``To put it mildly, cross-border relief is an extremely sensitive issue,'' said one West European diplomat.
Political concerns, like cross-border operations, may now be academic:
``The international community has simply waited too long,'' said one British aid worker.
Certain relief groups are calling for air drops as the only way to save lives. They estimate that 13,000 tons of food would cover the short-term needs of 1 million people.
Recent events in Tigre, however, have forestalled any hope of famine relief in the immediate future. In March the Ethiopians launched a major offensive against the Tigreans.
According to Western and other sources, including the Tigrean People's Liberation Front, the Ethiopians have bombed refugee columns and transit camps along the road to Sudan where several hundred thousand famine victims have already taken refuge.
Government troops have also reportedly destroyed numerous villages and farms, and totally disrupted relief efforts.
Denying relief access to guerrilla zones appears to be part of Ethiopian military strategy.
``Food control is as good a weapon as any,'' noted one European diplomat in Khartoum.
``The Dergue [the military government in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital] has no qualms about striking the Tigreans when they are down, he added.''
Because cross-border relief activity is so controversial, most major organizations prefer to operate only out of Addis Ababa rather than also in the guerrilla-held areas where the majority of famine victims struggle to survive.
``It is really a matter of respecting a country's sovereignty,'' explained Mark Bowden of Britain's Save the Children Fund.
``It is sad that we cannot help these victims but we also do not consider present cross-border efforts very effective.''
Meanwhile, it is alleged here that no more than half a million of the estimated 5 to 6 million famine victims in northern Ethiopia are benefiting from the Ethiopian government's own food distribution centers.
The allegation is vehemently denied by the Ethiopian government and some of the Western aid agencies.
Ultimately, all agree that what is most needed is a political settlement. But all sides remain politically intransigent.
``As a humanitarian agency, you don't put your highest priority on the political scene,'' said one angry Western relief official in Khartoum.
He then went on to add: ``Nor do you perpetuate the myth, as some agencies are doing, that the crisis is being resolved, which it isn't. . . . A lot of people are dying because of it.''