Eritrea's Other War: Against Famine

AN estimated 2 million Eritrean civilians are threatened with starvation from a drought that relief workers here are terming the worst in a decade of consistently bad years. Truck convoys traveling at night to evade Ethiopia's marauding jet fighters carry relief grain to clandestine distribution sites across Eritrea. But the route is tortuous, the transport costs exorbitant, and there is not enough food in the pipeline to keep up with the skyrocketing need, relief workers say.

The Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) sponsors trucks to carry food relief using funds provided by Eritreans around the world. Western organizations such as Oxfam, Lutheran World Relief, and others supply and help transport food aid.

Eritrea's rebel leaders say they see no solution to the hunger crisis without peace, and no prospects for peace short of a battlefield victory that will allow them to conduct a UN-sponsored referendum that will, they say, legitimize Eritrean independence.

Meanwhile, life in the Eritrean capital becomes more precarious each day, as the protracted siege continues.

Refugees fleeing the city say that all factories are closed, and normal economic activity is at a standstill. Grain prices have soared to more than 10 times their normal levels, fresh water is scarce, and there is no fuel or electricity for the civilian population.

According to recent arrivals interviewed in rebel-controlled Massawa, medical facilities are overwhelmed by war casualties, leaving little or no service for noncombatants.

The independent human rights monitoring group Africa Watch recently accused the Ethiopian Army of confiscating food from civilians and charged that the population is being held hostage against the threat of attack by rebel forces.

A 35-year-old refugee who asked that his name be withheld to protect family left behind said that he escaped using false papers, as no males between the ages of 14 and 30 are now allowed to leave under any circumstances.

LIFE in the surrounding countryside may soon deteriorate to similar levels.

From the outskirts of Asmara southward to the border town of Senafe, the ocher hills and barren, rock-strewn mountainsides tell an ominous tale of failed harvests and, in many cases, the inability of the local farmers to even sow their seeds during the annual planting season last spring.

Eritrea's two seasonal rivers, the Barka and the Anseba, which carry the main runoff from the highland plateau into the western lowlands and thence to neighboring Sudan, did not flood this summer, according to relief workers here.

According to one Eritrean relief worker, precipitation in the northern Sahel region fell from 18.9 centimeters in 1989 to only 1.08 this year.

``1990 is one of the most severe drought years that the country has experienced in the past two decades,'' says Gebremikail Mengistu, who is studying the impact of the drought in southern Eritrea for the Eritrean Relief Association (ERA), the agency that distributes all humanitarian aid to rebel-held areas.

There have as yet been no significant reports of deaths or outbreaks of epidemics often associated with famine, but there are signs of extreme malnutrition, he adds, warning that large-scale starvation could come in early 1991 if massive food aid is not forthcoming.

In September and October, Jarl Honore traveled on foot to some of the more remote villages in this region on a food monitoring mission for Norwegian Church Aid. NCA has provided relief supplies to Eritreans on both sides of the conflict since the 1970s. ``The situation is bad. We found the same problems all over,'' he says.

Mr. Honore describes one farmer who, lacking any reserves, borrowed seeds to plant this year, but was only able to harvest half of what he sowed. ``He would have been better off eating the seeds than planting them,'' says the Norwegian relief worker.

``The current situation in Eritrea is very, very bad,'' says ERA Secretary Tekie Beyene in the organization's headquarters, hidden deep within the honeycombed ridges of the northern Sahel mountains where the liberation movement maintains its rear base area. ``Unless the international community takes this very seriously, it will be devastating for us,'' he adds.

-D. C.

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