Ethiopia appears to stay one small step ahead of famine. But some relief officials are preparing for mass migration of starving people

Starvation apparently is being held at bay in Ethiopia. That is the assessment of relief officials currently in Ethiopia from the United States, the United Nations, and private relief agencies who say that there is no indication that people have begun mass migrations in search of food - a clear sign famine has not begun.

The US, which gathers data on food conditions and population movements from satellite imagery, is watching for signs of a mass migration. ``None of it has been spotted,'' says James Cheek, US charg'e d'affaires here.

But the race to avert a famine is at a very critical stage, these and other experts say. They expect some large migration of people toward food distribution centers within weeks. Preparations for camps at some centers are being made now.

``We're still convinced,'' says Mr. Cheek, that ``there are about one million people out there destined to move. We may not get any warning. We didn't in 1985 [during the 1984-85 famine].''

According to international estimates, more than 1 million people (the US says up to 2 million) have been cut off from government food distribution centers in the last two months.

This is largely the result of recent rebel advances that left larger areas in the hands of rebels in the two northern regions, Eritrea and Tigre. The advances led to a military buildup in those provinces and the ousting of almost all foreign relief workers.

Last week the International Committee of the Red Cross began a total withdrawal from Eritrea and Tigre, requesting that its supplies be transferred to other organizations because the Ethiopian government ordered all its foreign staff out of these regions.

Since the advances and the ousting, say experts, the people in these areas have either been living off reserves from their own crops or from previously delivered food aid, or relief agencies operated by the Tigreans and Eritreans have expanded their services to take in the population of newly acquired territories.

Without access to many drought-stricken areas in both government and rebel-held territory, however, experts here cannot be certain nutritional conditions of some drought victims are not slipping. And Cheek says there is no independent verification of food deliveries on either side of the conflict to be sure the military is not getting some of the food.

There are signs that this year will not be another year of drought like that of 1987, which hit Eritrea and Tigre especially hard. Rains have already begun in parts of Eritrea and Tigre. Relief officials hope farmers have enough food to permit some planting during the June rains that soften the ground. If they can stay on to tend their fields, or return periodically to do so, they may get a new crop.

Rebel advances have cut off all government food distribution in Tigre, except in the city of Makale which is not a heavily used distribution site, according to diplomats and relief sources here. In Eritrea, many of the more isolated food distribution centers are now in rebel-held territory. But about half of Eritrea's population and a network of food distribution centers are still in government hands. Monitoring of food distribution by international observers is allowed only in Makale and Asmara.

When the areas were cut off from government food relief, as much as two months ago in some cases, Western diplomats and international relief experts here expected a rapid migration to the government-area relief points.

The US and some private donors supply food to Eritrean and Tigrean rebel relief groups through Sudan. These relief groups are calling for additional support now. And, there are reports that the US has diverted some food destined for government areas to rebel areas, through Sudan.

Cheek would not comment on relief through Sudan. He did say the US has ``rescheduled, delayed, and sometimes diverted'' to other destinations some food destined for relief here, because of overcrowded ports and the reduced number of drought victims still in government held areas.

Cheek estimates rebel relief operations in Eritrea and Tigre are now reaching a combined total of up to 600,000 people, compared to about 400,000 at the beginning of the year. The rebel relief organizations claim they can reach the needs of almost all people in need in their areas if the donor community provides the food.

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