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ETHIOPIA: Over a million people won't live to see another year

By John Laverty

09 August 2004

Over a million people won't live to see another year. So how on earth can this utter catastrophe be allowed to recur? Our Sports Editor, John Laverty, has just witnessed this living hell and asks if the world will, once again, turn away from this disaster

I WAS in Ethiopia for a week in 1996 ... and I've just got back from that trip. Confused? That's understandable.

The African country employs a different calendar to the rest of us.

According to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, it is now 1,996 (not 2,004) years since Christ was born.

A different time system is in use as well; two hours calibrated as one.

Mekele, however, doesn't care what date it is in her native country.

And the only thing she knows about time is that, for her, it's rapidly running out.

It is now 11 days since the white man on a motorbike visited her famine-ravished village to announce where the latest feeding station had been established; a mere 180 miles away.

Oh well, the family had better start walking towards it. Why not? After all, there was nothing left to walk away from.

The family, then, consisted of 11-year old Mekele's parents, a younger brother and two cows.

Her father used to own a dozen cattle; indeed, such relative affluence is what won him Mekele's mother in the first place.

But these two sorry-looking beasts were all that was left of the herd now...

One by one they fell on the barren road that had promised succour and salvation.

Surprisingly, Mekele's father died first; it had always been assumed he would put up the most resilience to both the debilitating hunger and the scorching equatorial sun.

Then her brother went, closely followed by both cattle.

Watching her skeletal mother collapse and die was the lowest, most demoralising time.

Throughout the torrid, tortuous journey the two women had convinced each other their collective faith and spirit would help them make it.

By their calculations - both were now fevered and delirious through severe malnutrition, dehydration and sunstroke - the oasis was now less than a day away...

It was back in October 1984 that BBC reporter Michael Buerk revealed, to a stunned world-wide audience, the jaw-dropping scale of the famine in rural Ethiopia.

Then, the country was still at war with bitter neighbours Eritrea.

And although the crops had failed for a second successive year, the Ethiopian Government opted not to reveal the full horror of the resultant famine because many of the affected areas were in rebel hands.

By the time they allowed the Bob Geldof-inspired aid into the country, hundreds of thousands had perished.

Now, two decades after Live Aid, Buerk is still a major figure at the BBC, 'Sir Bob' is still appealing to a largely apathetic public - and Ethiopians are still dropping like the proverbial flies.

My first insight into this vast country was from a bus en route to the hotel from Addis Ababa airport.

The heat-buckled, pot-holed, overcrowded streets, gaunt, undernourished visages and dilapidated buildings provided a culture shock capable of slamming you back into your seat.

So too was the stench; it seemed to permeate everything, even the stifling steel cocoon I was travelling in.

I confided to the driver that what I beheld was 'every bit as bad as I expected.' That naive observation prompted a wry smile and the following reply: "Sir, this is the affluent area of Addis..."

Subsequent visits to the slum sites of this heaving capital city and beyond would reinforce the veracity of that comment.

Addis Ababa is a metropolis whose area would suggest a population of 600,000; six times that number are currently housed (so to speak) here - and it shows.

In many areas goats, sheep, donkeys, cows, rats - and human beings - urinate and defecate where they can find the space.

Deep trenches have been dug to accommodate the vast amount of putrid, poisonous waste flowing through the city every day. Fresh water and even the most basic toilets remain, for many, in the realms of fantasy.

Disease through the chronic lack of sanitation is widespread as is, of course, severe food shortages.

Yet Addis and other urban areas are regarded as Mecca-like sanctuaries by the thousands of starving country folk who continually pour into this teeming, filthy morass.

These streets, believe me, are lined with anything but gold.

But why? How on earth, in the face of so much universal public awareness, can this utter catastrophe be allowed to recur, not just here but in other areas of southern Africa such as war-torn Sudan?

You quickly discover that awareness of a problem is one thing; the ability to do something tangible about it is quite another.

None of the myriad of aid organisations out here are leaning on their shovels, of course.

Neither, thankfully, is a government whose former communist ideals have been usurped by a non-accountable, one-party, more capitalist-minded forum; the lesser of two evils, one might say.

Long-range weather forecasting satellites enable this colossal country - 1.2m square kilometres accommodating over sixty million people - to be more cognisant of impending droughts.

Rural 'roads' are being continually updated, although it will be many months - years even - before they reach out-lying villages such as the one Mekele's family hail from.

Projects to conserve soil, prevent over-grazing and utilise the scant water supplies are commonplace.

And aid agencies such as Concern and Save The Children are setting up feeding stations in remote areas where the starving masses receive basic, cereal-based rations - provided, of course, they make it that far.

The thing is, there can never be enough aid; this is the fourth successive year of erratic rains and failed harvests - the sheer magnitude of the fatality fall-out stretches beyond words.

Indeed, numerically the situation is even worse than 20 years ago.

Yet, astonishingly, in downtown Addis there are people sporting the latest Gucci and Armani bling, gliding around in BMWs and dining out at the six-star Sheraton - one of the finest, most luxurious and, considering the location, insensitively-placed and vulgar hotels I have ever seen.

The paradox of seeing well-heeled Ethiopians tucking into lobster thermidor, only a few yards from where their fellow countrymen are repelling starvation, sticks in my throat; that lobster - if there's any justice in this world - will hopefully stick in theirs.

Having said that, the vast majority of this beguiling country's inhabitants are among the friendliest, most hospitable, dignified, stoic - and refreshingly optimistic - people you could ever wish to meet.

Generous too (considering how little they have to offer) and trustworthy; despite the dire circumstances in which these poor souls find themselves, incidences of theft here are negligible.

Meanwhile, the Sheraton diners discuss, over petit fours and fresh espresso, the major-league capitalist investment that apparently is on its way.

The ostentatious hotel that facilitates the conversation is concrete proof of that, and indeed motorways, high-rise office blocks, modern shopping centres - as well as proper schools and hospitals - are already under construction.

Ethiopia also boasts as yet untapped reserves of gold, platinum, copper and natural gas.

One businessman told me: "Over the next five or six years, this place is going to be awash with Western and Far Eastern money; you'll see."

Perhaps I will - but so many others won't. Come to think of it, over a million Ethiopians won't even live to see 1997...

Some 300 miles from the Sheraton - and less than five from the Wadla Feeding Station - a tattered brown and white scarf marks the spot where Mekele's emaciated and lifeless little body tumbled into an arid river bed.
 Belfast Telegraph