Last month, the Ethiopian government suspended almost all food relief to rebel-held areas of drought-stricken Eritrea and Tigre provinces. Observers say that now the most viable means of providing food to the more than 3 million people facing starvation is through the indigenous Eritrean and Tigrean relief networks.
``It's the only way to go. I don't think there is an alternative at this point,'' says Gail Smith, a development consultant in Eritrea and Tigre the last nine years.
``The best way is to use the ERA [Eritrean Relief Association] and REST [Relief Soceity of Tigray (Tigre)],'' says Lou Witherite of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, which is supporting the relief efforts of those two agencies. The large donor agencies, she added, are ``limiting themselves if they think the only way is [to use] safe passage as provided by the Ethiopians [the government].''
ERA and REST have underground supply networks from across the Sudanese border, using dirt roads, pack animals, and humans. This is ``the only - and a very effective - channel for reaching a vast majority of people in the North,'' says Chris Carter of Grassroots International, a Massachusetts-based development group.
Currently, however, the major food donors, the UN World Food Program (WFP), the United States Agency for International Development (AID), and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), say they cannot work through these channels.
``Our policy is that distribution has to be handled by the Ethiopian government,'' says Tek Tomlinson, director of the WFP office in New York. ``WFP is an intergovernmental organization, and we can only operate within the legitimacy of the law. The question of making food available to rebel groups doesn't arise.''
Ms. Witherite contends, however, that a distinction should be made between the Eritrean and Tigrean relief agencies and the rebel armies. ``What we're talking about is not aid to the rebels,'' she says. ``We're talking about aid to famine victims. ... ERA and REST are not part of the liberation front.'' She says that food distributed by ERA and REST is not used to feed the rebel forces.
AID's position is less clear-cut than that of WFP, since the US has no relations with Ethiopia or the rebels.
The possibility of US food aid being channelled through the rebel network was left open by Frederick Machmer, AID envoy to Ethiopia. ``I'm not saying it's not an option.'' But, he added, in view of the extreme sensitivity of the issue, ``that would be a rather closely held operation.''
The major relief agencies are concerned about jeopardizing their food networks in other provinces.
Nicholas de Rougemont of the ICRC in New York says his agency has made a proposal to rebel leaders whereby the ICRC would set up their own food delivery system in the drought-stricken areas. But observers say this might be counter-productive and waste time, since efficient networks and monitoring systems already exist.
Mr. de Rougemont says ``the Ethiopian government has issued a warning about cross-border operations, which it sees as very unfriendly. We're always in touch with all parties, but we certainly aren't doing any cross-border operations.''
Meanwhile, at least 1 million Eritreans and 2.6 million Tigreans need immediate food aid, say ERA and REST representatives. (Official US figures put the numbers at 1.7 million in Eritrea and 1.5 million in Tigre.)
Last month, the Ethiopian government began a major military buildup in Eritrea and Tigre. It suspended most famine relief operations in the northern provinces, and ordered foreign aid workers out, citing safety risks. Since then, 65 UN workers have been allowed to return, but may distribute food only in government-held areas.
Eritrea's Red Sea ports, where large quantities of international food aid are stockpiled and in danger of rotting, are controlled by the government and serve only Ethiopian-held cities. US food relief is now reaching 800,000 people in government-held areas, says Machmer. But the vast majority of Eritreans and Tigreans live in rebel-controlled areas. A long trek to receive food in Ethiopian-held cities could mean disaster.
``A lot of the suffering in 1984-85 was because recurrent drought had forced people to migrate and they were unable to produce [food],'' says Ms. Smith. ``That's the critical thing to avoid at this point, at all costs. If the major agencies said they were going to do cross-border operations, migrations could be minimized. ...''
The ERA and REST, says Witherite, try ``to reach people before they leave their homes. ... If [the large donor agencies] want to act on this in an urgent manner, they have to be concerned about delivering food to the people who need it.''