ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The Ethiopian army used force to evacuate and burn the country's largest famine relief camp, which had a population of 60,000, two senior Western relief officials who visited the camp said.
The officials said that, beginning Sunday and ending Tuesday, troops herded more than 50,000 famine victims, including several thousand children under 5, out of Ibnet, a camp in Ethiopia's central highlands. They then burned the grass huts in which the people had been living.
State Department spokesman Edward P. Djerejian confirmed the report Wednesday, saying, "We deplore the incident and expect the Ethiopian government to take immediate steps to rectify the situation." And Assistant Secretary of State Chester A. Crocker told a congressional subcommittee, "We are appalled at the brutal and hasty way in which the dispersal was carried out."
Ethiopian officials, declining immediate comment, said a government statement will be issued today.
In a May Day speech Wednesday, however, Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, the country's Marxist military leader, attacked Western nations as "imperialists" through the use of "subtle propaganda" denigrate the government's resettlement program. "They vilify and oppose all our positive efforts (against famine) and pretend to sympathize with our people," Mengistu said of Western countries that have poured millions of dollars of food and aid into Ethiopia.
The camp, which on Saturday had been a general feeding, child nutrition and medical center run by four private relief agencies and the Ethiopian government, was by Tuesday a blackened plain, where a few stray cows wandered amid mounds of ashes and shards of broken pottery, according to the Western officials who flew to Ibnet on Tuesday morning.
These officials said that from an airplane they saw thousands of people walking from Ibnet in long lines that snaked along dirt roads and dried-up river valleys. About one-third of them reportedly are heading east, through some of Ethiopia's roughest mountain terrain, to Wollo and Tigre provinces, the regions hit hardest last year by drought. Those headed for Wollo must walk three to six days; for Tigre, up to 14 days.
"These people are fairly undernourished and a lot of them were not fit to undertake this journey," one of the relief officials said. Staff members at the camp predicted that as many as half of the walkers could die.
In addition, the relief officials said, 4,500 refugee volunteers were flown west over the past four days in Soviet transport helicopters to resettlement areas in the fertile western end of the Gondar region near the Sudanese border.
"For the others, there was no opposition to the army. They are a very incredibly docile people," one of the relief officials said.
According to the relief officials, who said they talked with representatives of the Ethiopian government and private relief workers at the camp, the evacuation was ordered by leaders of the Worker's Party of Ethiopia who, under Ethiopia's Marxist system, govern the Gondar region.
The relief officials said they were told that the party cleared the camp to allow the residents to take advantage of recent rains by returning to their homes, where they were promised they would find seed and farm implements. Party officials reportedly said that evacuation of the camp would end overcrowding that could spread disease and that those leaving Ibnet were strong and able-bodied.
However, nurses working for Concern, an Irish relief organization that fed and cared for children of Ibnet, reported that hundreds of "very sick children" disappeared between Sunday and Tuesday. The nurses counted 17 bodies Monday along the road leading east from the camp, one relief official said.
Specialists on the Ethiopian famine here in Addis Ababa said that the Wollo region, the destination of many of the evacuees, remained an inhospitable area with little seed, limited supplies of farm tools and almost no food outside feeding centers like the camp the walkers were forced to leave.
According to the two relief officials, at 3 p.m. Saturday, relief workers were called together and Marxist officials announced they were going to close the camp and that no one in the camp from Wollo or Tigre was to receive any food, water or medical care. That order included many of the 5,000 children in Concern's intensive feeding program.
Army guards were posted to keep camp residents away from the five water wells, and Sunday, troops moved in and began ordering people to leave. Residents were told to carry what they could. As soon as they left their corn-stalk huts, soldiers set them afire.
Once the evacuation began, guards were posted on the road heading east to make sure that no one came back.
Monday, the soldiers came again and the camp was emptied of all but about 10,000 people. Tuesday, the rest of the camp was emptied, except for about 3,000 people who were incapable of walking.
Crocker, of the State Department, said an official from the U.S. Agency for International Development has been sent to the camp to determine what could be done for the people. Meanwhile, the Administration is talking with other food donors and the United Nations to determine how to assist the homeless people.
"Those people have nothing, zero," Crocker said. "We're asking what we can do to get food and other support to those people who are without anything--without food, without blankets, without cooking utensils, without anything."