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Ethiopia: Hope drives people on the move

04-05-2000 News Release 00/16

If the rain fails in south-eastern Ethiopia yet again, or if it is limited to a few showers, the risk looms large that major famine will hit the region. The ICRC and the Ethiopian Red Cross Society are only at the beginning of a huge relief operation, which might go on until the end of the year, aimed at improving the nutritional status of the entire population in the targeted areas.

News, and rumour, travel quickly through the barren, drought-stricken landscape and can prompt large numbers of people to leave their homes. Whenever there is a rumour of available food, people are soon under way in the hope of finding enough to feed their families. In the town of Janogaban, some 100 kilometres north of Gode, at least 10 new families arrived within the few days that followed the first ICRC visit. " They have heard that the Red Cross was here and hope to find food " , said Hassan Sheikh Mohammed, a village elder.

Isolated in the desert terrain of Ethiopia's Somali National Regional State, Janogaban was not reached by any aid organization, Red Cross or other, until recently. On a mission to monitor the ongoing food distribution, the ICRC team was told about the severe needs of the village's population. The team immediately went to assess the situation and, finding a very high rate of malnutrition, decided to include Janogaban in the Red Cross food distributions. The poor nutritional status of Janogaban's 7,000 inhabitants is obvious. Walking through the town, one sees emaciated children, mothers who cannot feed their babies and old people who can hardly walk. In the centre some 20 people have gathered. Just arrived from a much smaller v illage, Waranle, they all have similar stories. Many have lost all their livestock. Only the lucky ones still have a few cows, goats or even a camel left. Some have watched their children and other loved ones die. " One family in our village lost a baby " , says a woman holding her small son. " And another lost two – just this week " . Diseases like diarrhoea, tuberculosis and measles are all too familiar to the people in the area – all can be deadly if the victim is already weakened by hunger.

In the hope that someone will be able to help them they have come to Janogaban, a town whose inhabitants have very little themselves. " This is all I have " , says Siado Wli pointing to a box with some maize in it, which has to feed a family of four. When the box is empty she has no idea where she will obtain more food. Asked about the health of her three-year-old son, she just points at him. The boy, named Ahmed, sits quietly and stares. He doesn't play the way three-year-olds usually do.

 Different people, same problems  

In other parts of the area the Red Cross team meet other people, but the problems and the stories they tell are just the same. In a camp for displaced people just outside Denan, some 70 kilometres north of Gode, Mako Awbarakoow is living with her husband and seven children. They used to do quite well with their 50 goats and 20 cattle. Two months ago the last cow died and the family had nothing left to live on. They walked for eight days to reach Denan. On the way they had to bury two of their children who were too weak to survive the journey through the desert. For the time being they have given up their nomadic life and settled in a hut built of whatever was at hand: branches, bits of plastic and empty Red Cross relief sacks. For the moment they must survive on the aid.

 Journalists and the Red Cross  

In a race against time, the ICRC and the Ethiopian Red Cross are carrying out a major relief operation to distribute food to some 188,000 people in the four districts where high malnutrition rates have been recorded: Gode, Imi, Denan and Adadle in the south-east of the country. The first phase of the operation is aimed at stabilizing the situation and arresting malnutrition by providing the whole population in the targeted areas with a regular and carefully balanced diet. " The children, the sick and the elderly are the first victims, but the rest will follow " , says Raoul Bittel, head of the ICRC sub-delegation in Gode. The ICRC considers general food distributions to the entire population as an essential first step before setting up any therapeutic feeding centres. If enough food is not generally available in the immediate surroundings, the worse cases, who are treated in the centres, will have nothing to fall back on once released.

The urgency of getting the food distributed to the people is demonstrated by the rising death rates and high levels of malnutrition observed by the ICRC in its surveys. In Gudis, a village some 200 kilometres west of Gode, mortality rates as high as one per 1,000 per day were recorded in March. This is double what may normally be described as a major catastrophe. This rate was made even higher by a measles outbreak. People rarely die of hunger itself, but they become sick as a result and the diseases they contract in their weakened state kill them. " Most of the diseases are caused by poor nutrition " , says Bittel. " To fight the cause of the problem we are at this moment focusing on distributing the food aid as quickly as possible " .

If the rain fails yet another year, the ICRC fears that famine will spread to a wider area than the pockets already seriously affected and anticipates that it might have to step up the operation. " We are prepared to continue the operation until the end of the year, when the next rainy season hopefully will bring sufficient water to this region " , Bittel says. He points out that the people in Janogaban might not be the last ones in dire need to be identified. In the town itself, meanwhile, Hassan Sheikh Mohammed finds it hard to express the gratitude he feels for the help his village is receiving. " We have seen nobody here – except journalists and the Red Cross " , he says.

Since 30 April there has been substantial rain in Gode district and other areas. People nevertheless retain a pessimistic view regarding the rainy season as a whole because it has come so late – it should have started weeks ago. The rain showers have not so far seriously hampered the relief operation. However, continued heavy rain may bring increasing logistical challenges as the already difficult roads become extremely muddy. Normally they dry up quickly after a few days. If trucks are stranded for longer periods, it might be best to bring the aid as close to the needy as possible and have the strongest among them pick it up and take it further, for example on camel-back.