ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Day after day on the front pages here, farmers from drought-stricken northern Ethiopia speak of a grave threat to the very existence of this 3,000-year-old nation.
But they do not mention the famine that imperils up to 7 million Ethiopians. Instead, they talk of a 27-year-old civil war, which until two months ago the government dismissed publicly as an isolated case of rogue bandits.
"Like our forefathers who stood for Ethiopia's unity, we the children stand and fight," declared Izra Haile, a bearded white-haired peasant featured recently in the government's Amharic-language daily, Addis Zemen.
Izra was pictured holding an AK-47 rifle across his chest and standing on the parched farm he was protecting from those bent on secession from the motherland. "If there is no country, there is nothing," he was quoted as saying.
Nearly overnight, civil war has supplanted famine as the top priority of the Marxist leaders in Ethiopia, leaving the large Western-sponsored famine relief operation stunned and apprehensive about the coming months.
Foreign aid workers have been ordered out of the northern regions of Eritrea and Tigre, where separatist groups have won important battles against the Soviet-equipped Ethiopian army. Conscripts are being rounded up by the tens of thousands, a stiff war tax has been imposed on the citizenry and a state of emergency has been declared in the north.
"Everything to the war front," has become the country's motto.
But as Ethiopia galvanizes for all-out war, Western relief officials estimate that 1 million to 2 million people are now out of reach of food aid. They live in the growing no man's land between government- and rebel-held territory in the rugged, mountainous north, where crops failed last year. It has been at least two months since food was distributed to those peasants.
Many relief officials and diplomats believe that movements of people are probably unavoidable in the coming weeks, and contingency plans are under way to establish feeding camps for 150,000. In the famine of 1984-85, more than a million people abandoned their farms and villages in a desperate search for food; hundreds of thousands died in such camps, too far gone to be saved by food.
Food Distribution Hampered
Food distribution in the north, where 3 million victims of the drought live, has been hampered by the escalating war since last fall. Rebels have attacked relief trucks, roads have been frequently closed and aid operations have been forced to remain within shrinking areas still under Ethiopian army control.
The international relief effort was paralyzed in April, however, with Ethiopian President Mengistu Haile Mariam's rare acknowledgement of "grim battles" in the north and his call for the country to rally for war.
Government troops retreated to the two major towns in those provinces, and travel by all foreigners--diplomats, aid officials and journalists--was banned, depriving international donors of the independent monitoring they need to make sure relief goods are not misused.
"For three years, famine was a very clear concern and priority of this government. But that has gone by the boards," said David MacDonald, Canada's ambassador to Ethiopia. "No one should doubt the Ethiopian people's commitment to keeping this country together. To give up Eritrea, the front door of the country, is not something that is easily contemplated."
About 70 foreign relief workers were sent home from Eritrea and Tigre "for their own safety," the government said, and it asked foreign aid agencies to "temporarily" turn their operations and food stocks over to Ethiopians.
The Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross pulled its 30 Swiss delegates out of the north but refused to hand the operations to its local, quasi-governmental affiliate. Instead, the Red Cross locked up nearly 100 trucks, supplies and 53,000 tons of food.
The Red Cross charter requires that its delegates personally monitor relief operations. "What credibility would we have if we told people all our food was being distributed properly? They know we're not there to watch it," said Vincent Bernard, a Red Cross official in Addis Ababa. In a fit of pique, the government this month also ordered Red Cross representatives out of Gondar province, where they were distributing food for 210,000 people, leaving a void in the relief network there.
Ethiopian officials say that when the civil strife in the north dies down, they will allow foreigners to return. In the meantime, the government says, it can handle food distribution there without any outside help.
"We trusted them; now they have to trust us," said Teklu Tabor, a senior government information official. "After all, who cares for Ethiopian people more than Ethiopian people?"