WUKRO, Ethiopia — White-haired village elders with walking sticks led 6,000 farmers, herders, mothers and children down from the stark mountains into this swirling dust bowl the other day to collect a month's supply of flour, beans and cooking oil.
By day's end, the people had loaded their mules and their own thin shoulders with relief food and begun the long walk back to their empty cupboards and withered crops in the highlands, carrying with them the promise that there will be food here again next month.
Just three years after a devastating famine sparked one of the largest relief efforts in history, an even more severe drought threatens millions of Ethiopians. Relief agencies have responded by undertaking an expensive airlift and setting in motion a massive food distribution system.
Avoiding 1984-85 Famine
The question now: Will this relief effort work? Most experts say it can probably prevent a repetition of the famine of 1984-85, when 700,000 to 1 million people died. But much depends on prompt and generous donations of food and supplies and the safe movement of food over difficult terrain in the midst of two civil wars.
Officials say their goal is to get food to people early enough so that they will return willingly to their villages, as thousands did the other day at a food center run by the International Committee of the Red Cross here in Wukro. In the last famine, nearly a million people lost all hope, abandoned their homes and farms and formed more than 50 camps near large cities in a desperate search for food. That is where many of them died.
"It's going to be an agonizing year; we're going to be walking on a tension tightrope from week to week," said Rick Machmer, director of the U.S. Agency for International Development office in Addis Ababa, in a recent interview. "I was here in 1985, and I'm getting the same feelings now."
More U.S. Aid Expected
Food needs are pressing. To avoid a break in the grain pipeline this spring, international donors must again pledge large quantities of food by the end of December. The U.S. government, which has provided 125,000 tons thus far, is expected to announce additional food aid this month.
The Ethiopian government has asked for 1.05 million tons of grain in 1988. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization says the country needs 1.3 million tons. Either way, Ethiopia needs several thousand tons more than it was able to move through its ports at the height of the last famine.
The rugged face of northern Ethiopia, a frail provider even in the best of times, is dry and cracked today. Seeds planted in May have died. Food stocks from last year's harvest are gone.
So little grain can be found that its price has quadrupled at the market. So many emaciated cattle are being sold that their prices have fallen by 80%.
Growing numbers of children are showing the frightening warning signs of starvation: shriveled fingernails, stunted growth, white hair. A chart in a relief worker's office depicts the rapidly deteriorating health of Ethiopia's children in the months preceding the last famine. It bears a close resemblance to this year's chart.
The government estimates that 5.2 million Ethiopians will need international aid through 1988. AID puts the number at 6.4 million, and other relief officials predict privately that it may go as high as 8 million. That compares to the 7.9 million who were fed in 1985 and the 5.8 million in 1986.
For the farmers and cattle herders who scratch a meager living on the beautiful, barren highlands here, everything seems frighteningly similar to 1984. Some say it's worse.
Dmtsu Dedimas planted barley, wheat and beans in May on his farm atop a narrow plateau near Wukro. But no rain fell in June or July. By the time the rains began in August, when it rained for just 10 days, it was too late. The drought of 1987-88 had already begun.
Northern Crops Failed
By early September, it was clear that all but a small part of the crop across Eritrea, Tigre and parts of other northern provinces had failed completely and that several million people, many living miles from the nearest road, would be without food at least until the next harvest.
When Dmtsu picked up his walking stick and led his wife and four young children on the trek to the Red Cross distribution center here, he was in a desperate situation.
He had run out of food and his herd of 25 sheep had dwindled to three. He had sold them, for about $7 each, to buy grain. But with everyone selling livestock, prices were low. Each sheep bought a two-day supply of food for his family.
At the food center here, on a dusty moonscape ringed by mountains, the 36-year-old farmer talked about the problem. He wore a green hat and turned his bearded face away from the wind. His wife sat quietly under a black umbrella, gazing at the stacks of grain.
Seeds 'Never Came Up'