They are everywhere in this hot, humid, wind-swept port on the Red Sea: bags of famine-relief grain donated by Western countries and India, piled up in mounds beside ships, on docks, under shelters, out in the open. Yet they shouldn't be here at all.
They are desperately needed in the rest of Ethiopia by hungry and starving people now estimated by the government to number 10 million.
The backlog of wheat at this port alone, has soared to 85,000 tons, enough, according to the United Nations, to feed 5 million Ethiopians for a month.
So slow is the movement south that a vitally-needed airdrop program by British and West German cargo planes from Addis Ababa to remote communities in the north is in danger of shutting down because storage sheds at Addis airport are almost empty.
A single UN statistic sums up the transport crisis here: 60 percent of the food coming in from other countries has yet to be distributed to those who need it.
A lot of these bags in Assab have lain here for two months or more. White bags from the United States and Australia, made of polystyrene instead of jute, grow brittle after eight weeks in a relentless sun that pushes daytime temperatures above 100 degrees F. The bags crack when walked on or even touched. Grain spills and ultimately spoils.
Recent rains that battered Assab with almost a year's average fall in a single hour rotted about 5,000 tons of grain that had been left in the open air. That's enough to feed 300,000 Ethiopians for a month at famine-camp rations, relief officials say.
Marxist-style red tape creates endless delays. Unloading fees incongruously high for grain given free by other countries. The captain of a Cypriot-registered 16,500-ton cargo vessel which unloaded a gift of wheat from the Greek government said he had to pay $61,000 to discharge.
All this despite a pledge by Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam on May 8 to the UN to solve unloading and transport problems partly by providing more military trucks.
On a visit to Assab, Mengistu said the rate at which trucks were loaded to leave the port would rise by some 200 percent.
It did so the day he was here (May 8) and stayed high several days after that. It shot up from 548 tons of food on May 5 to 3,600 tons on May 8. But by May 11 it had leveled off at 3,500 tons.
Yet coordinating officials with the UN World Food Program in Addis Ababa say that even if it remains high by early June the backlog is likely to be 111,000 tons.
Little wonder then that Desmond Taylor, the deputy representative for the UN World Food Program in Ethiopia, says the Ethiopian government ``has not responded as well as we had anticipated in moving grain'' in recent months.
The transport crisis symbolizes the extreme difficulties in this impoverished country of managing the huge grain relief effort.
It is not that the West or India is failing to provide enough food. The problem is moving it inside Ethiopia.
To be fair, Mr. Taylor makes these balancing points: ``The Ethiopians are trying to do what they can, in the face of civil war, poor communications, and so on.
``You must also remember that we usually don't bring in food aid through Assab at this time of the year because the port is filled with fertilizer imports and coffee exports, and these tie up trucks as well. . . . The normal commercial life of the country must continue.''
Nonetheless the Assab bottleneck comes at a bad time for the Mengistu image abroad. In late April, local party officials ordered troops to force some 35,000 famine victims out of Ibnat camp, the largest in the country.
Western aid officals were outraged that the weak and ill, many of them small children, should have been told to walk for days in intense heat. Realizing how bad the expulsion looked, Mengistu told the UN it had been an error. The returnees are receiving food again.
In an effort to quiet aroused feelings abroad, a small group of Western newsmen, including this correspondent, was permitted to fly to the camp last Saturday. Obvious attempts were being made to make amends.
No sooner had Mengistu grappled with that episode than he faced the situation here in Assab. But it has to be said that improvement in recent days has been limited.
Assab, perched on the Red Sea coast, receives more than 70 percent of all food imports. But this stiflingly hot port looking out over a Red Sea whose waters are actually a spectacularly beautiful turquoise, has no railroad. The only way for grain to move out is by road or air.
The main obstacles:
The port. It often exasperates UN officials, who try to throttle back their emotions in the interests of working to keep food moving.
A comfortable backlog would be 50,000 tons, the WFP'sDesmond Taylor says. But, including such nongrain items as beans, sugar, canned goods, and milk powder, the backlog now totals 101,000 tons.
The trucks. They're always in short supply, despite a government promise to throw in an extra 150 military vehicles a day.
Officials took a few Western newsmen to a parking lot that held dozens of shiny, new three-ton, six-wheel, khaki-painted Soviet ``Ural'' military trucks. Ethiopian officials told correspondents that 118 Soviet military trucks were allocated to haul grain: 40 25-tonners and 78 3-tonners. Two giant 40-tonners were thrown in also.
The congestion: Among the 12 ships waiting outside the harbor this writer saw five grain ships. Normal commercial shipping is supposed to yield to them, but competition remains.
On the dockside: Grain bags from Idaho; bags stenciled ``a gift of love from the people of Washington State''; Greek wheat; Indian grain; Australian grain; Canadian wheat -- all waiting to be moved.
In April, UN figures show, an average of only two grain ships were in port on any given day, and only 70 trucks were on hand carrying away 1,579 tons a day. A total of 50,314 tons arrived by ship.
In May, 88,000 more tons are expected to flood in here, some on US ships delayed from April. The World Food Program office is seriously considering asking donors to delay ship arrivals for a while.
The cargoes: Chief WFP coordinator at Assab, Capt. Hans Nielsson of the Swedish Merchant Marine, says many cargoes are so poorly packed into ships that food breaks loose in transit.
Cans of vegetable oil from Britain are a particular problem. They spill, making holds slippery, putting dock workers at risk, and adding to already long port delays. Nielsson needs more tarpaulins to cover grain, and more pallets to lift it off the ground both in the sheds and in the open where it is being stored.
A suggestion by Desmond Taylor: ``Donors should send grain in bulk and we will bag it.'' Bagging in the US costs an extra $60 a ton. -- 30 -- ``Some of these UK cargoes look as though someone has gone round a supermarket with a shopping cart and thrown it all in,'' Captain Nielsson said with considerable heat. ``Donors would do better to pack food properly.''
An international airlift under way since last November helps move some of the backlog, but in April planes moved only 98 tons a day in contrast with almost 1,600 tons a day in trucks. Still, UN and Ethiopian officials are pleased with the airlift's success.
``All of us have to do a better job,''says Desmond Taylor. ``We're trying.''