With the Relief Trucks in Ethiopia

TRUCK driver Debre Yohannes rested his forehead on the steering wheel. ``I am dead tired,'' he sighed. But for Yohannes, on contract to the Relief Society of Tigre (REST), there was to be no respite. The convoy in which he was traveling had ground to a halt in the darkness. One of the 15 trucks had bogged down in a dry river bed. It might take hours of hard work before the drivers could extricate it.

The approach of dawn lent urgency to their labors. Once daylight came, the truck would be an easy target for the Ethiopian air force. Their marauding MIG fighters regularly bombed relief convoys bringing emergency grain to the starving people of Tigre province.

The famine that has blighted northern Ethiopia is a backdrop for daily life-or-death dramas such as this. Every night caravans of ancient 10-ton vehicles snake over a desolate landscape of dusty plains and precipitous mountains. Men fight for the honor of driving the lead truck, for there is the additional treachery of land mines planted along the way.

This crusade to save peasant farming families from otherwise inevitable starvation is run by the Tigrean People's Liberation Front. They are rebels fighting to end the despotic Marxist rule of Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam.

The punishing schedule calls for a round trip of six nights to offload the sacks of grain and return across the border to neighboring Sudan. After one day of rest, the cycle starts again.

I had the opportunity to witness the drivers' courage first-hand when I traveled through Tigre with the convoys. Many truckers, who drive 11 hours a night without a break, volunteer their services free. I asked Yohannes, on a monthly salary of $83, if he was ever frightened.

``Of course. If a MIG drops a bomb, you're dead. There's no escape. But what can you do? Our people must eat.''

A miasma of hunger has settled over Tigre province where, in some places, up to 90 percent of last year's harvest withered on the stalk when the rains failed. Aid workers have put the number of people at risk from starvation at 2.2 million.

Through REST's valiant efforts, 800,000 have been fed on basic rations by purchasing grain in surplus areas with money supplied by aid agencies such as Oxfam and Save the Children Fund. The cross-border operation from the Sudan brings in another 13,000 tons a month. But these supplies reach only two-thirds of those who are hungry.

The difficult choice of who gets fed and who goes hungry is made by the people themselves in ``baito'' meetings. The grass-roots accountability ensures that food is distributed where the food is needed most. An aid worker told me how one family head asked to be struck off the distribution list even though his children were weak from hunger. The children of his neighbor, who was not on the list, were hungrier, he said.

There has been only a limited response to the crisis from the international community, where opinion has been dulled by ``compassion fatigue.''

Ironically, disinterest in the plight of the Tigreans may stem from their effort to do everything right. They have not migrated in search of food in the towns or to refugee camps in the Sudan so that they can plant seeds after the June rains. They are also busy maintaining vital water and soil conservation schemes.

In 1985 Western governments mounted a massive relief operation that shipped 1.7 million tons of food. The trigger was television footage of tens of thousands of rail-thin men, women, and children begging to be fed. No such heartrending images have emerged from this latest famine, which requires only 650,000 tons of food for both Tigre and the next-door province of Eritrea. This provokes the hypothesis that humanitarian reaction comes only after catastrophe.

There is also the problem of communication. Few reporters have ventured into Tigre, an assignment that holds inherent dangers. So it is not widely known that the famine is largely war-induced.

The Tigreans' 15-year rebellion against the systematic genocide perpetrated against them by the government has erupted into a full-scale war. Mengistu has responded with a scorched earth policy. Until the army was driven from Tigre province in February 1989, troops deliberately burned crops, slaughtered draft animals and destroyed farming tools.

REST estimates that this wholesale destruction was directly responsible for 61 percent of crop deficits. If left to pursue their basically sound agricultural practices, the Tigreans could be self-sufficient in food because they would be allowed to accumulate surpluses from years when there is good rainfall.

Tigre is at the epicenter of Ethiopian culture. People were farming here 2,000 years ago, long before agriculture took hold in Europe. It has one of the most important pools in the world for genes of durum wheat, barley, sorghum, linseed, finger millet, and chick peas. Farmers in the United States benefit by about $150 million a year from a barley variety originally collected in Ethiopia.

But this agricultural treasure trove has been plundered by Mengistu. In a country where the annual per capita income is $93, some 84 percent of farmers' cash income is consumed in state taxes. This is not an incentive to produce.

Some food is trickling north from the government side of the fighting since an agreement of safe passage was concluded. Even so, it is only a fraction of what is needed. But Western governments, confusing humanitarian needs with political ones, have virtually ignored REST. They do not want to offend Mengistu by working with the rebels, they say. It is time this perception was corrected.

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