The more than two decades of civil war in Ethiopia has been subordinated in world attention once again to the wider tragedy of famine and hunger.
In the war in northern Ethiopia, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) and its counterpart group in the neighboring province of Tigray seek autonomy from the national government in Addis Ababa. Eritreans in fact want full independence and have struggled for it from the time their province was a colony of Italy. Throughout, international humanitarian agencies have succeeded in bringing relief and rehabilitation assistance to the apolitical millions who suffer recurring cycles of want and deprivation and to whom the causes of the war are beyond comprehension.
Just three years after major fund-raising efforts by British and American entertainers highlighted the hunger problem in Ethiopia, widespread areas of the country are again facing threats of famine and starvation.
And now there is a new jeopardy for the volunteer groups that are trying to get emergency relief to areas where it is most urgently needed.
On Oct. 23 an unarmed convoy from the city of Asmara, carrying emergency foodstuffs largely provided by the the United States, was attacked and destroyed by armed guerrillas. Sixteen of the vehicles were in the service of the United Nations. Seven belonged to Catholic Relief Services. The casualties in all the crews were Ethiopian citizens. The vehicles were unambiguously identified with U.N. flags and relief agencies' logos.
An ambush like this one was unprecedented. Within the past three months at least five other convoys used the same road without escort and without incident.
Responsibility for the attack and destruction of 450 tons of food has been claimed by the EPLF, which contends that the convoy was a "camouflage" for the movement of Ethiopian government weapons and ammunition. Without appearing as a spokesman for that government, I can state flatly that this charge is untrue. It is worth noting that the attackers did not even take time to inspect the cargo, which consisted solely of desperately needed food.
There is speculation that the ambush may have resulted from faulty intelligence or was justified because government troops had been in the area. Yet a EPLF source in Washington was quoted saying, "It was not a mistake," adding, "we cannot be blamed for any consequences that might happen." This, after declaring that the EPLF has no "wish . . . to deter relief activities."
The balance of this year and most of 1988 may well see a return of the starvation crisis. In the past, relief services were able to get delivered emergency food and supplies to 400,000 people without interference from rebels or the government. This recent attack represents an alarming change.
By its own estimate, which is corroborated by independent appraisals, Ethiopia will require at a minimum 950,000 tons of emergency food in the next year. Looking at that grim prospect, outside donors and private voluntary organizations have been at least encouraged that, unlike three years ago, a food distribution network is already in place. It will be easier this time to get a handle on the problem. And, while relations between Washington and Addis Ababa remain strained, the Reagan Administration made it clear by word and action that it drew a sharp distinction between political differences and humanitarian needs. (The United States recently donated 115,000 tons of food.)
Those in the relief effort want to prevent the forming of large and unsanitary camps of men, women and children in search of food, pictures of which graphically dramatized the last crisis, when perhaps as many as one million died.
Tragic as it is, a return of famine to Ethiopia can never be ruled out. Nor can it be concluded that the unprecedented international rescue effort was without result. Millions who might otherwise have died were saved while recovery and longer-term development projects in certain areas have taken root. Alone, Catholic Relief Services has expended $30 million in specifically designated contributions to such work.
Still, it is a fact of life that drought spreads faster than development, and that, regrettably, has been a pattern in Ethiopian history. And other factors come into play: Low rainfall and flooding, pockets of deforestation, declining crop prices and unenlightened governmental policies exacerbate problems that cannot be alleviated merely by dollars. And in meantime, the civil war in the north continues.
Whether the Oct. 23 attack was an isolated incident or whether it the beginning of a new EPLF policy remains to be seen. Hunger is spreading through all parts of Eritrea and Tigray so quickly that humanitarian concerns should surely dwarf all others.
Humanitarian agencies are not political players in Ethiopia and wish to avoid becoming such. There should be assurances of secure and unimpeded access to areas in the greatest need. Relief agencies are prepared to stay the course. The food trucks that were destroyed are already being replaced.