- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 28, 2002

GEWANE, Ethiopia Bushta Abdi, headmaster of Gewane junior school, has seen the mounting horror of Ethiopia's famine reflected in his pupils' faces ever since the failure of summer rains.
"The first thing I noticed was they lost their concentration in class. Then I saw their bodies changing as they lost fat. And now the numbers in class are declining as the children are forced to leave."
Mr. Abdi does not expect much by way of creature comforts for his 315 pupils. The school has no electricity or water, no lavatories and no food to provide a lunch.
Yet by virtue of having a school to go to, Mr. Abdi's charges are, in Ethiopian terms, relatively privileged, so the teachers and pupils do not complain. But the disaster that is playing itself out around this town and throughout the Afar region is one challenge for which Mr. Abdi has no answer.
In one class, 40 of the 110 pupils have simply disappeared as their parents take their chances and flee to the cities, knowing from their memories of past droughts of the horrors that lie ahead.
If this famine reaches the peak that sober and scientifically based predictions suggest, many of the children who are left behind around Gewane will be dead within a year. By wiping out Ethiopia's tentative efforts to educate its children, this famine is entrenching the relentless cycle of hunger and underdevelopment by throwing the consequences of this crisis forward into the next generation.
We are conditioned by haunting television images to see famine in terms of fly-blown faces and swollen bellies, but that stage has not been reached. Ethiopian famines have their own awful rhythm: First the cattle die, then the goats, and then the people.
The first stage has been reached. The main rains of June to September have failed, so the ground is void of grass and the cattle are dying by the hundreds of thousands.
FARM (Food and Agricultural Research Management)-Africa, one of the aid agencies active in this region, believes that one-third of the cattle in Afar have died and that soon none will be left.
Afar is largely a pastoralist farming society in which the economy is based entirely on livestock. The pastoralists build up herds of cattle, move them around from season to season in search of pasture, then exchange them for grain to feed their families.
With no banks and virtually no cash economy, cattle is a form of exchange and the only store of capital. In Afar, a man's wealth is calculated by how many head of cattle he owns. Therefore, as the cattle die, the entire rural economy is destroyed. The local people have no way of feeding themselves other than to cadge sacks of corn from the relief agencies.
Husiene Ibrahim, a local leader and agricultural commissioner for the Afar region, fears that this famine will be worse than the one of 1984 to 1985.
"The people are already eating just one meal a day from the aid food stores. There is no fresh water to drink, so the children are drinking from rivers and spreading diseases because that is where people throw the dead cows."
The sense of despair is compounded, he explained, by the witch doctors' confident predictions, based on readings of the stars, that the next rains in March also will fail. But even if the lighter spring rains bring limited relief, some 17 million Ethiopians in the affected areas face the terrible struggle of getting through the next four months of dry season with no prospect of rain.
In times of famine, it is often impossible to know precisely what has caused a child's death, because so many diseases are caused or made worse by malnutrition. It is clear from talking to medical personnel in the villages that children already are dying of diseases that they would survive in normal times.
FARM-Africa sends specialists to set up camp for three months in villages and advise the communities on animal husbandry and disease prevention, but it is clear that the relatively small charity is overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis. It has been working to improve the health of livestock, but now is planning to offer assistance in slaughtering animals efficiently, rather than simply waiting for them to die.
At one settlement at Beida on the banks of the Awash river, the consequences of the drought were plain to see. The clan leader, Aden Uda, used to be a rich man, but he lost 93 of his 100 cattle and clearly was humiliated, having to rely on supplies of international aid to feed himself and his family.
The villagers keep their cattle in a central kraal, feeding them leaves from the trees in a desperate and perhaps doomed attempt to keep the remaining scrawny animals alive. Many of the grass huts were abandoned by families that had decided to take their chances in less-remote regions, where deliveries of food might be more reliable.
No one knows exactly where all the people are going, but clusters of hungry refugees gathered around churches and main road junctions in Addis Ababa have alerted the residents of the capital to the crisis in the rural areas.
In the capital, many are angry with their own government for its failure, again, to heed past warnings about drought. Much-needed agricultural reforms have been delayed, and the government's refusal to restore private landownership to small farmers has exacerbated the crisis by discouraging long-term conservation.
The political failure to resolve the festering border dispute with Eritrea has made matters in the north far worse, and disputes with Somalian tribes have increased tensions. In Afar, the majority of men walk around armed, either with AK-47s slung nonchalantly around their shoulders, or with traditional daggers.
In Addis Ababa, the government appears to have abandoned all efforts to deal with the crisis itself. Having learned nothing from past famines, it prefers to shame international donors into action, gambling that the rest of the world will not have the stomach to be mere spectators to such a terrible human disaster.


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