Ethiopia and West clash over famine. Regime's determination to close relief centers is only one issue

The Ethiopian regime is coming into increasingly sharp conflict with Western governments and relief agencies over three aspects of its toughening policies for dealing with the country's 8 million famine victims. The first is over Ethiopia's determination to close down relief centers. The government is trying to persuade peasants to return to their parched lands in anticipation of the end of the seven-year drought with the promise of early rains.

The criticism is not over the decision to clear the camps as quickly as possible, but over the peremptory manner in which camps such as Ibnet, in Gondar Province, were cleared at short notice last week without sufficient regard to the needs of the camp's 50,000 inhabitants on their long trek home.

United Nations Assistant Secretary-General Kurt Jansson was scheduled to visit Ibnet yesterday to look into the situation and then discuss it with Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile-Mariam.

The second contentious issue is the Ethiopian demand that Sudan's new military rulers shut their nation's borders to prevent the arrival of any more refugees and prevent international agencies from continuing to send food and medical supplies to relief centers in Ethiopia's rebel-held provinces of Tigre and Eritrea.

President Mengistu has accused Western volunteer agencies of using the supply of famine relief as a pretext for sending military supplies to the Tigrean and Eritrean rebels. The agencies deny these allegations.

The Mengistu regime is reported to have made the closing of the border a condition for establishing friendly relations with the new regime in Khartoum, and for preventing rebels in southern Sudan from conducting military operations from Ethiopian soil.

The relief agencies insist that if the Sudanese regime were to give in to the Ethiopian demand, hundreds of thousands of people in some of the worst-afflicted areas would be cut off from all food and medical supplies.

The third point of controversy is Ethiopia's policy of resettling up to 1.5 million peasants, often by force, to areas of the country not prone to drought.

The authorities in Addis Ababa have been stung by Western reports of the campaign of forced removals. The regime insists all such reports are inaccurate, but it has not allowed independent observers into the resettlement area.

Meanwhile, the regime has in recent weeks sharply increased air and ground attacks on trucks bringing aid from across the Sudanese border. The government insists that all aid should pass through official channels, even though the government cannot arrange for delivery of aid to large areas in Eritrea and Tigre.

In a recent address to the Central Committee of his ruling Workers' Party of Ethiopia, Mengistu claimed that his regime has moved 338,984 people from Tigre, Wollo, and Shoa provinces in the previous five months.

Western powers are not participating in the program because they are not satisfied that the peasants are moving voluntarily, or that adequate preparations are being made to give them a reasonable new start on new lands.

The West's refusal to help has intensified Mengistu's pro-Soviet policies.

The regime defends its resettlement policy as the only long-term answer to the problems of peasants in the drought-stricken northern provinces. While the Western agencies accept the case for resettling peasants, they insist on two requirements for their cooperation: such moves should be voluntary; the land for the settlers must be adequately prepared.

An investigation by Survival International, a Boston-based humanitarian association, has produced substantial evidence of widespread brutality and abuses of human rights in the conduct of the resettlement program. Three researchers carried out surveys among refugees fleeing from resettlement areas.

Everyone interviewed claimed to have been forcibly resettled and claimed that nobody they knew of from the northern provinces had gone voluntarily. This is different with peasants from some areas of Wollo and Shoa, who appear to have welcomed the move. Nor do all those who had been moved come from areas badly affected by the drought; some claim they were abducted while actually engaged in threshing their own grain. According to the report of the interviewers:

``Men thus taken were separated from their families. Women had been taken in the market when they were nine months pregnant; others were separated from their babies.''

One reported incident relates to an event in October 1984 when peasants who were lured to feeding centers by offers of free food were rounded up by soldiers and taken south. Similar incidents were reported by peasants from Eritrea, Tigre, and areas inhabited by the Oromo tribe.

Peasants now avoid the feeding centers in the northern provinces because they fear being rounded up.

Those collected in Aksum and Adwa (in Tigre Province) were taken by helicopter to Makale by ``white pilots.'' (It is known that Soviet-bloc countries are engaged in helping to airlift people to resettlement areas.) From Makale they were taken in Antonov jets to Addis Ababa en route to the resettlement areas.

Peter Niggle, one of the Survival International researchers, was told that between 350 and 400 people were packed into a single aircraft. Some were reported to have died during the one-hour flight. Lack of pressurization may have contributed to these casualties.

Not all those taken for resettlement were carried by plane; many went in open trucks from Addis Ababa to Jima. Their experiences on arrival at their new settlement areas varied.

In Ilubabor, the local Oromos had carried out orders to prepare huts for the newcomers and to give up some of their own meager possessions of pots, pans, and chairs. But at many of the 30 camps in the Asosa area there was little or no provision by way of accommodation, seed grain, or systematic work.

However, the Asosa camps, which were established in 1981-82, are now producing a good deal of food. But the earlier settlers from Wollo complain that 60 percent of what they produce is claimed by the authorities. On the other hand, the newer settlers complain that the earlier settlers have become ``infamous for looting and attacking women. The local people have no protection from them in any way.''

Their depredations are carried out under a blanket authority given to them by the security forces to ``prevent contraband trade in food.''

Strict measures are taken at most camps to prevent settlers from escaping. According to one report, only one in four who have tried to escape from Asosa camps actually managed to reach Sudan.

The report by Survival International is the first independent investigation into the conditions of resettlement. Because all those interviewed were refugees from resettlement camps, it is possible that they are keen on presenting only the worst side of the picture. Nevertheless, the stories -- related by hundreds of people coming from different regions and having escaped from different camps -- are so similar that they cannot be dismissed.

Notwithstanding the fact that the bulk of all food and medical aid is coming from the West and only a trickle from the Soviet bloc, the ruling party's Central Committee has just passed a resolution singling out ``the socialist community'' for its famine aid and merely expressed gratitude ``to various governments and charitable organizations for their assistance.''

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