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May 1985
Text : Cheryl McCall

Victims of famine


The plight of the starving Africa, especially in Ethiopia, has drawn the world’s horrified sympathy and elicited an unprecedented outpouring of money (over $1 billion) and supplies for the relief of these suffering people.  But the outrageous and ironic fact is that in Ethiopia scores of thousands of homeless people are continuing to starve, their fate made worse by the callous resettlement policies of their government, which deny them from food and shelter in the name of political expediency.  For a firsthand report on these victims of famine and cruelty LIFE recently sent photographer Mary Ellen Mark and writer Cheryl McCall to Ethiopia.  McCall’s report follows:

After his parents starved to death this winter, Fantaye Abay, the 10-year old orphan at left, walked 20 miles from his village of Gerbkola to Korem, a relief camp 250 miles north of Addis Ababa.  He has nothing to wear during the near-freezing nights at this altitude of 12,000 feet except a pair of shorts and his father’s only legacy, a tattered, filthy suit jacket.  The Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC), which controls all aid distribution, has refused him food, clothing and shelter because he has not been officially registered as an orphan by the Farm Administration.  “His parents could still be alive,” explains the bureaucrat at the orphans’ tent.”  “He could be lying just to get some food.”  It is a form of murder by bureaucracy.  He sends Fantaye away to almost certain death in the open fields outside the camp.  Other youngsters are receiving pieces of flat bread, distributed by workers for the British Save the Children Fund, who struggle to feed 15,000 a day on rations for 6,000.  But there are 50,000 people at Korem, and hundreds silently gather around the children, tears streaming down their faces as they hungrily watch the food disappear.  No one begs.  Their immense dignity–or resigned fatalism–is awesome.  “We are a proud country,” says a military official.  “In feeding camps, you see no grabbing of bread, no looting.  People die proud.”

Nevertheless, soldiers with whips and guns patrol the camp to prevent rioting at the sight of food.  “We can feed the children up to five years old.  But after that, we have to watch all their mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers get sick because they don’t receive food,” says Dr. Valerie Schwoebel, 29, an intense, almost ascetic pediatrician with the 18-member Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)–Doctors Without Borders–team in Korem.  “The food exists here,” she says, “but it is not given out.”

As thousands, often near death, arrive at Korem’s relief camp, they face armed soldiers and an agony of a different sort- deliberate starvation of forced resettlement.

Attracted by death, flocks of plump vultures circle brazenly low over the camp by day, and packs of hyenas prowl the open fields at night, howling and sometimes gnawing on infants and adults too weak to fight them off. The level of starvation is so acute for some that their bodies have begun to digest their own organs and they lie in pools of bloody diarrhea. Dying of pneumonia or typhus first seems a less painful, more merciful end. Eyasu Hadis, a 12-year-old Korem boy, tells of watching people commit suicide by leaping from a bridge into a deep gorge. “They were damaged by starvation,” he explains.

“It’s easy to see that the government doesn’t care,” says 30-year-old Mercedes Fernandez, an MSF nurse. “We have tents–we can put everybody inside for the night. But they have forbidden us to put up the tents.” There are now 48 international and voluntary organizations operating 211 relief centers in Ethiopia, and enough food has been donated or pledged to feed the nation’s malnourished this year. But the brutal truth is that Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam’s 10-year-old military regime is intentionally subverting relief efforts and withholding the aid from those who most desperately require it. By whatever coercive means necessary–including forced marches at gunpoint–Mengistu has ordered the resettlement of 1.5 million famine victims from the northern provinces to camps in the southern lowlands. The plan is to separate them from the rebels who control much of these northern territories. “It’s cruelty. They pick the young for resettlement and leave the others to die,” charges Fernandez. “They use us to institute their policies. They told us that we are not to give blankets or clothes or food. They said your problem is only medical care. But when you put people outside without blankets and clothes, it becomes a medical problem.”

The government denies both the reports and the eyewitness accounts of foreign relief workers who have seen hundreds herded at gunpoint into Soviet-built aircraft and trucks bound for resettlement areas 400 to 600 miles away. “They showed no mercy,” says a Catholic nun who witnessed families in Tigre being separated, and pregnant and nursing women forced against their will into the waiting transport. In one case four famine victims who resisted were shot to death in the northern town of Adigrat in front of several hundred witnesses. Mengistu’s officials dismiss these facts as “propaganda” spread by the CIA and other foreign agents to discredit the government. But dissidents and foreign observers charge that the famine has provided Mengistu with an excuse and a weapon more potent than the $3 to $4 billion he has in Soviet-supplied arms or Ethiopia’s 270,000-man military force. He has denied ulterior political motives. “What we are doing is really praiseworthy,” Mengistu told CBC-TV. “We have two courses of action open to us. Either we take these people and provide them all the opportunity to produce, or simply leave them there to their fate and perhaps to annihilate themselves.”

Starvation complicated by mumps and diarrhea killed Chekole Debasser, four, whose grieving parents say: “We also lost our younger child. Now we are finished.”

In the tent the Ethiopians call the “die place,” the body of a 28-year-old woman is washed for a Muslim burial by her mother and aunt.

For the famine victims forced to live outdoors, blankets and crevices in the parched earth provide the only shelter during Korem’s cold nights.

A guard keeps the hungry at bay while those more fortunate receive bread. “It’s not normal, it’s not logical,” says a nurse. “Why won’t they let us help?”

In Korem, where the government’s secret resettlement quota is said to be 20,000 per month, the MSF team returns to the wards each morning to find seriously ill patients missing. “We are told that they were taken for resettlement,” says a doctor. Beyond the political and cultural considerations of forcibly merging the northern Amharans with Ethiopia’s scores of ethnic groups, the doctors say, are critical medical problems. Highland people–already ravaged by malnutrition–have no immunity to the tropical diseases in the south. And without careful screening, the government is transporting potential epidemics of measles, whooping cough, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases to southern populations.


We were in Korem during a surprise visit by RRC and Ministry of Health officials from Addis Ababa. In one day the RRC removed more than 2,000 people from the recovery tents and herded them to the open fields. The officials marched into intensive care wards and began ripping blankets off the frightened patients, huddled five to a bed. When they discovered a woman whose lower legs had been amputated to save her from gangrene, they furiously upbraided Dr. Jean Rigal, 34, who had performed the surgery. Rigal was told that he must seek permission for amputations from the Ethiopian Worker’s Party chief in Korem-who would decide who lived and who died. Then, in a tense, two-hour meeting with the MSF staff, the officials informed them that the RRC was confiscating their warehouses of 10,000 blankets, tents and clothing. They were also forbidden to give any food, as had been the practice, to the 100 Ethiopians who toil alongside them in the wards as translators, medical assistants and sanitation workers. Without food, these Ethiopians, too, will be forced to accept resettlement to survive.

With famine victims arriving in Korem at the rate of 5,000 a week, pneumonia and typhus (spread by lice in the ragged clothing) are claiming even more children’s lives than starvation. Measles kill babies every day. The Ministry of Health workers have cut back vaccinations to only two hours each morning. “That means that every afternoon, children who are newcomers are not vaccinated, and there is no follow-up,” says Dr. Schwoebel, who supervises overcrowded quarantine tents for children with infectious illnesses-whooping cough, measles, chicken pox.

The figures kept by Korem’s RRC chief of operations, Yeshitila Demerraw, show the awful efficiency of government rulings. In one month dry rations of grain and rice were cut by more than one million pounds and only 2,654 blankets were given out–10,000 fewer than the previous month. “To see grown men and women crying from pure hunger breaks my heart,” says Rita Waters, 28, a British nurse with MSF. “Why aren’t the people in Korem getting food? It’s become blackmail. They have to go to the resettlement camps to get food or pay a bribe to the Farm Administration to be registered for it. The bribe might be only a few birr [a bill worth 50 cents], but these people have nothing when they arrive here. It’s awful because this is their last hope.”

The silence of the relief agencies about these practices is both embarrassed and coerced. To admit that the government prevents them from fulfilling their missions is humiliating and self-defeating. More to the point is the threat of expulsion from the country if the workers protest or report the atrocities they witness. There is a fear not only that the donations will stop but also that the assistance they can offer will be curtailed–thus insuring that even more victims will perish. Despite government obstacles, relief agencies are confident they can still reach many starving people in Ethiopia and other famine-stricken African nations.

Even the daily preparation of bread for MSF patients is a wrenching sight for those denied food. “They suck your fingers to show how hungry they are,” says a nurse.

Ahaza Desta has just given birth to her fifth child–a girl she names Tehaynesh Tafere–during a remarkably silent, unemotional delivery. Having spent two weeks in the open field, Ahaza is dazed but happy to learn that her infant is her passport to the warmth and food of the postnatal ward. Though MSF midwife Françoise Rouet, 25, has an obstetrics table here, the Ethiopian women prefer to squat on a swatch of black plastic on the floor to give birth. “I knew this method of having babies was possible but I never saw it before,” says Rouet. “Now I think: Why not? It’s more natural.”


The Ethiopian Red Cross supervises sanitation and disease control in Korem by delousing 200 newcomers a day. In two tents on the camp’s outskirts, their infested clothes are steamed and their hair shorn. At top, Meselu, 13, shaves the head of her mother, Belutu, 40, upon their arrival after a three-day walk from the village of Sekota. Starvation has killed the rest of their family. Above, a health assistant in the pediatrics ward sprays flea powder on Heholu Huyla, the mother of four ill children.


Nurse Brigitte Lelin, who sometimes cries in her room at night, searches the open fields every day for the most critical cases. “I was really fed up after the meeting with the RRC,” she says. “I wanted to leave. But if l can still help a few people, there is a reason to stay.”

Belgian nurse Cécelia Vermeulen, 25 (left), and Dr. Valerie Schwoebel help Belay Adame, 8, take a few steps. The boy suffers from malnutrition, pneumonia and parasitic, foot-long worms that crawl out of his mouth. His walking is a hopeful sign.

Corrugated tin wards, warehouses of misery sheltering as many as 2,100 sick and dying, represent some hope on this barren plateau in the stark Adinaba Mountains. Hundreds cluster at the doors, pleading with guards for admission, but only the most grievously ill get inside, where the Médecins Sans Frontières staff perform minor miracles.

At eight each morning, six doctors, 10 nurses and a midwife face the wall-to-wall crush with a kind of determined cheerfulness. Probing glands, locating veins and inserting tubes, they peer into the blank stares of gross malnutrition. “There is not only death here,” says Dr. Antoine de Campeau Grimaldi, 29, who “left the comforts of sophisticated medicine” to serve with MSF. “You don’t see it at first, but there is much life and a will to live.” Still, the range of diseases is overwhelming and encyclopedic, from the usual to the horrific–leprosy, polio and elephantiasis, a grotesque swelling of limbs caused by the bite of an infected mosquito. Daily attempts at sanitation are defeated by a limited supply of water and epidemic dysentery, which leaves blankets and beds soiled, the air fetid. There is no X-ray equipment or blood for transfusions. The lab can do only the most rudimentary tests. “I am practicing medicine blind,” says Paris-born Dr. Michel Clement, 29, as he thumps a boy’s chest to confirm a diagnosis of emphysema complicated by measles. Clement’s wife, Bénedicte, 25, is a physician in one of the children’s wards, where she is lovingly called “Mother” by her patients.

Established in Paris in 1971, MSF is an apolitical, nonreligious, privately funded group of 700 medical professionals who volunteer their skills wherever war or natural disasters strike. Many on this team have served previously in Afghanistan, Thailand, Uganda, Somalia or Sudan. “We have no borders and we go where the others are not,” says Dr. Brigitte Vasset, 32, the Korem team’s medical coordinator. “Just a few people do what we are doing. Some join to practice another kind of medicine, some to help people, and others, I think, for the adventure.” Vasset adds that 50 percent never serve again after one mission. It is an act of courage that the MSF doctors and nurses–young idealists who work for six-month stints for all of $350-have begun to reveal the real horror in Ethiopia.

“I joined because I wanted to touch reality,” says nurse Elisabeth de Faramond, 29, who is on her third tour of duty. “This is a pretty strong dose.” Responsible for 1,000 children in the “super-intensive” malnutrition clinic, she supervises six feedings a day of fortified milk, rice, kita (bread) and Oxfam energy biscuits. Those who don’t respond are shifted to pediatric wards to be fed intravenously. Team members already seasoned by famine relief in Sudan and Somalia are still shocked by starvation so dire that some adults weigh only 47 pounds. At times their task seems as futile as emptying the ocean with a teaspoon, but each gain is its own reward. “People come to us in a comatose state,” says British nurse Waters. “We put them on a glucose drip and they slowly wake up. It’s like watching a flower blossom.”

At six p.m. the doctors and nurses must leave the camp by order of the military. A curfew three hours later restricts them to their cell-like rooms until daylight. The team’s logistician, José Fernandès, 27, formerly an international bicycle racer, is required to deliver their vehicles to the army compound each night. Their day off every two weeks is confined to Korem’s town limits; hiking in the fields and mountains is forbidden. “I felt like a prisoner at first,” says Mercedes Fernandez. “This is the first country I’ve been in with so many guns.” And yet, there are triumphs that make it all seem worthwhile. “Today all the children in our ward were walking. I was very happy,” reports Lebanese nurse Raja Sharara, 29. “I don’t know what their future is, but I prefer not to think about that. I must just think of today.”

Dr. Bénedicte Clement collects her fee from four-year-old Mohammed. She and her husband, also a doctor, plan to volunteer for missions in Chad or Mali next. “We have had all the material things in France. We don’t seek the comforts,” Bénedicte says. “Now we’re looking for other kinds of satisfactions.”

Nurse Raja Sharara drains peritoneal fluid from a kidney wasted by malnutrition. In spite of her efforts, four-year-old Kasu Ysmaw died that night in a feverish coma. “If you have no food, your medicine does nothing,” says Sharara. “I cannot accept it when they die.”

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