Ethiopians Endure Uncertainties of Civil War, Famine

Despite constant threat of attack, everyday life swirls forward - a letter from Dessie

IN Washington, Presidents Bush and Gorbachev put the conflict in Ethiopia back on the world's agenda. At the Soviet-American summit, they agreed to a joint airlift of United States grain by Soviet aircraft to famine-threatened regions of Ethiopia. They also supported a peace conference for the region, to be held under United Nations auspices.

Meanwhile in Dessie, one-horse taxis still share the roads with an occasional Army tank. And about 25 miles away is the ``front line,'' separating the government's Army from the rebel Tigr'e People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which is fighting for regional autonomy and a new central government.

US and European grain is being loaded by the ton onto trucks and driven into rebel-held drought areas, where some 3 million people face possible starvation. This means of transporting relief food has kept many alive, and will get a boost from the new US-Soviet agreement.

But everyday life here reflects deeper uncertainties.

For example, there is the constant threat of attack.

Several months ago, TPLF rebels struck around Dessie. Since then, there have been periodic exchanges of gunfire between the government forces and the rebels.

``At first we were frightened'' by the sound of the guns, says one resident here. ``Then we got used to it.''

Another Ethiopian says the rebels were at first hated and feared. But, he adds, when the government began bombing rural areas in response to rebel advances, some sympathy turned toward the rebels.

Such attacks have forced many people, including government civil servants, to flee from areas now in rebel hands. Asked which side he prefers, an Ethiopian worker says, ``I don't like the government.... But I don't like the TPLF either.''

Pressed further for a preference, he finally says ``the government.'' Somehow, with the government in charge, he says, there might be some stability. The government, however, is on the shakiest ground it's been on in years, as rebels continue racking up victories against a demoralized Army. The economy remains stagnant - and dirt poor.

Meanwhile, people try to continue their lives.

On a side street, a teenager, timing his move just as a foreigner jogs by, unleashes a semiprofessional cartwheel and two back flips. Young boys still play soccer on empty lots. But a young man says the city has only one good soccer field - ``not enough.''

Schools continue. And at an Ethiopian Orthodox church, worshipers still crowd in to pray. Visitors there are proudly shown the religious and traditional wall paintings inside, which are usually covered by tall curtains.

A few miles south of town, a farmer stops plowing for a moment to explain that ``this year the rain is better than last year.'' Asked if he has any problems, he says: ``The main thing we need is health clinics.'' Then he adds, ``My farm is too small.'' He resumes his labor, shouting and grunting signals to his two oxen, occasionally cracking a whip.

The soil on his small farm looks rich. But this is not one of Ethiopia's fertile areas.

A woman laborer in town explains she is head of her family, consisting of her mother and three younger sisters. She says she earns only $20 a month. Asked what the family needs to get along, she says ``about $100.''

Nevertheless, like many Ethiopians, she places a high priority on education. She is in secondary school, and her sisters are either in primary or secondary school as well. Though the future of her country is unclear, she is making plans: ``After I finish [school], I want to get a good job to help my family and myself.''

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