The African killing fields; you heard all about the Ethiopian famine. Here's the story that President Reagan, relief groups, and the media didn't tell you.
In 1984 and 1985, the American media saturated the public with stories about the famine in Ethiopia. Television footage of starving children made a deep imprint on the American audience, causing a flood of relief aid. However, while the amount of American coverage was impressive, the depth of treatment was not. The American media, in fact, dealt with only a thin slice of reality in Ethiopia, a country riven by ethnic conflict that was going through a bloody transition to a communist system.
The media told us little of the war between the Ethiopian government and the Eritrean and Tigrean guerrillas in the northern part of the country, even though it was taking place in the middle of the famine zone and was being fought on a larger scale and for a longer period of time than any other war in Africa. (Since 1961, the Eritreans have sought independence from the government; the government has fought to keep Eritrea, its only outlet to the sea, from seceding.) In the years preceding the famine, more soldiers the d in northern Ethiopia than in either Central America or Lebanon. And it was war, as much as drought, that caused the famine in the first place.
Forced resettlement of Ethiopian ethnic minorities was an important element in the communist regimes war against the gueff illas. So was the destruction of tribal farming systems and the regrouping of millions of farmers into state collectives. Since 1980 the number of blacks who the d at the hands of security forces in South Africa has been numerically insignificant compared to the number killed by the Ethiopian authorities by the force of collectivization-and this figure does not include famine deaths. Yet, with a few exceptions the media put relatively little effort into investigating this story.
Equally disturbing was the ambivalence of President Reagan on this important issue. What communists were doing in Ethiopia was far more horrible than what communists were doing in Angola or Nicaragua. But while other administration officials frequently criticized the regime in the strongest possible terms, President Reagan himself was pracfically silent.
A communist regime brutally uprooted its own citizens against their will, forcibly separating hundreds of thousands from their families and killing tens of thousands through deliberate mistreatment. But the impact of this cataclysm on the media, a conservative White House, and the American public Wus minimal.
Rather than a catastrophe, the famine was a godsend for this regime. The famine created a pool of millions of peasants who, whatever their political leanings, now had no choice but to rely on the governrnent for help. The government now had a legitimate excuse to relocate those it thought to be hostile, as well as the wherewithal to do it, partly because of relief supplies pouring in 'from the West.
Not only did the resettlement program destroy the livelihoods of peasants in the north but the program destroyed those in the south, too. Many of the new sites in fact had been successfully farmed for years before the indigenous inhabitants had their land expropriated by the state to make way for the new arrivals. The rationale for the seemingly irrational act was military and political: most of the sites were located along access routes used by the Oromo Liberation Front in its war against the government. Thus, not only would the Tigrean rebels in the north be deprived of their base of peasant support but so would the Oromo rebels in the south. Moving people around became another way to prosecute a war.
Prisoners on Soviet planes
Woldeselassie Gebremariam, a Tigrean priest in his late thirties, was one of 50 Ethiopian refugees interviewed in March 1985 at a camp in eastern Sudan by Peter Niggli of the Swiss church group Berliner Missionwerk. Woldeselassie's village was in the area held by the TPLF, the Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front, fighting the Ethiopian regime.
Woldeselassie told Niggli: "A cattle plague broke out last fall (1984) in the whole region... .The government announced it was going to vaccinate all the cattle free of charge at Adme (in the north -central part of the province). . . .We rounded up 750 head of cattle in our village and started off.
Woldeselassie, expecting to return home in a few days, left his wife and three children back in his village. This was about the time that a Newsday report (December 9, 1984) entitled, "New Start for Chosen Few" by Josh Friedman, indicated that a number of resettlement abuses, including forced separation of families, had ended.
"We arrived in Adwa on December 6 (1984) and were surrounded by soldiers in the middle of the town." (Woldeselassie explained how the soldiers picked out the youngest and the strongest of the peasants and took them to prison.) "We shouted 'Who was going to take care of our cattle?'. '. .They answered that it would be no loss if we lost our cattle, the government was going to resettle us and would replace our cattle in the new settlement."
For food, the prisoners were given two pieces of bread a day. The soldiers reportedly ate from grain bags, whose markings indicated they had been donated by the European Economic Commission and the governments of Canada and West Germany. On the eleventh day, Soviet pilots transported Woldeselassie and the others from Adwa to Makelle by helicopter. They couldn't go by land because the countryside in between was controlled by the TPLF
"We were kept in an open field. There was no shade during the day and no shelter from cold at night '" Others at the camp explained how on account of catastrophic sanitary conditions, people fell ill with diarrhea and vomiting. Many died. But when foreigners, including journalists, visited near the camp, the Tigreans were temporarily moved elsewhere.
Soviet-made Antonovs, provided by the Soviet Union and Libya, were used in the operation to move Woldeselassie and the other prisoners to the capital of Addis Ababa. The planes, whose unpressurized cargo bays were designed for 50 paratroopers, carried 300-350 people on each flight. As Woldeselassie and many others described it, the sick people were laid on the floor in the middle of the plane, then the healthier ones were packed in. At Bole airport in Addis Ababa, troops carried off the dead bodies, and a fire brigade hosed out the pool of vomit and piss from the floor of the plane.
Although water was not scarce, the peasants were given offly one cup of water each before being packed tightly onto buses for the long journey to Welega, a province in western Ethiopia astride the border with Sudan.
The jungly no-man's-land was near Asosa, a town about 25 miles from the Sudanese border Woldeselassie said that no food was provided for two days after his group had aff ived. Woldeselassie was fortunate, however After one failed escape, he succeeded in reaching Sudan, where Niggli interviewed him.
Resettlement was simply an interesting sideshow to the main famine story when Niggli, along with Bonnie K. Holcomb and Dr. Jason W Clay of the research group Cultural Survival, arrived in Sudan in February 1985 to interview those who had escaped. Western journalists and diplomats in Ethiopia had caught glimpses of people being herded into trucks and airplanes. One U.S. diplomat went so far as to say that "the selection process recalled Auschwitz '" But there re issue ground to a halt for lack of evidence. Resettlement areas were off limits to all foreigners except those on prearranged tours to model camps. The government denied that the program was not voluntary or that it was motivated by any factor besides the humanitarian desire to relocate drought-stricken peasants to more fertile areas in the west and southwest of the country. Western relief officials stationed in Addis Ababa, whose presence depended on the goodwill of the local authorities, tended to back up the regime's assertions. The obfuscations no doubt influenced Friedman's Newsday article, as well as a report aired April 1, 1985 on ABC's "World News Tonight" by correspondent Lou Cioffi, who depicted resettlement as a necessary evil:
"Despite all the accusations, the governmnent is going ahead with resettlement. The land in the north is dry and dead, nothing grows there. In the south it is rich and fertile. There is plenty of water. In this camp with proper irrigation, they can grow two crops a year. . . .This settlement [near Jimmaj had become for them a showcase, a demonstration that despite difficulties the resettlement program can be made to work. . . . As for the settlers, there are personal problems. Many are homesick, others are concemed about families the y left behind... .This massive movement of almost one-and-a-half million people will not be easy. But even those Western officials who are critical of the program admit there may be no other way."
Jimma, as it turned out, was one of the camps about which Culwral Survival had obtained firsthand information concerning massive human rights abuse.
Cultural Survival, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, came to Sudan with especially impressive credentials. Founded in 1972 by a group of social scientists at Harvard University, its reports on endangered ethnic groups in Africa, Asia, and Latin America have criticized right-wing and left-wing governments alike and have been utilized by the World Bank, USAID, and foreign governments to judge a country's human rights record. Clay's team interviewed 277 Ethiopian refugees at six sites in eastem Sudan. All interviews were taped and then translated a second time by other translators back in the United States. More than half those interviewed were selected at random and, in almost all cases, involved more than 5 percent of the total population of each camp. This was a statistically huge sample. (Harris polls, for instance, rely on .0004 of 1 percent of the U.S. population.)
For the two months that they were in Sudan, Niggli, Holcomb, and Clay went about their business quietly and didn't socialize with the crowd of journalists and relief workers in Khartoum. A year later, when the results of their research were being hotly discussed, few could even remember them.
By the time Clay and his team completed their work in Sudan at the end of March 1985, between 300,000-400,000 peasants from the north of Ethiopia had been resettled, according to the authorities in Addis Ababa. From a strictly scientific point of view, as Clay admitted to me, his findings could not claim to provide a wholly accurate picwre of what was happening to those still in Ethiopia because the Ethiopian refugees in Sudan may not have been representative of those who were resettled. Clay said, however, "The information that we collected was so similar on so many fronts, that it has to be taken seriously," regarding the present siwation inside Ethiopia.
To my knowledge, no swdy of re Great Leap Forward in China or the actions of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia was as well packaged as was Culwral Survival's Politics and the Ethiopian Famine 19841985, a 250-page monograph, served up with an array of attractive maps. If you could wade through the overwhelming details-few could-they were absolutely devastating.
"All those interviewed insisted that they had been captured by government troops and forced to resettle . . . ," the report said. "Ten percent of all those interviewed reported that they witnessed people being killed who tried to escape." More than 40 percent said they were beaten. More than 85 percent said they had been separated from at least one member of their immediate families. Amete Gebremedhin, a Tigrean in her early forties, stated that after she and a group of other capwred women protested to the militia about being separated from their husbands and children"the soldiers laughed and said: 'What do you care about your children, you will find new ones in Asosa.' "
Some of the peasants were held in proper feeding camps, accessible to Western journalists. But "only the meek, quiet people were allowed to see the journalists. Group leaders and known resisters were moved out of camp areas where journalists were permitted to roam." In one case, an Ethiopian government official announced that "white guests are coming. . . .Whether you speak positively or negatively we will translate positively to the joumalists'" Another Tigrean, Haili Kelela, claimed that in front of a group of "white people" who had arrived in "a white car with a red cross painted on it," he and seven others told party cadres that they didn't want to be resettled. The cadres assured them that "we will give you food. . .and lead you back to your village'" But after "white people" had left, he and the others were Brown in prison and beaten until "I had to vomit blood."
Everyone interviewed said people had died en route to the resettlement sites. Clay's analysis of the death figures was the most comprehensive and the most controversial part of his research.
His figure of 50,000 to 100,000 dead set the aid communities in Khartoum and Addis Ababa ablaze. It was a higher death rate than at the emergency feeding camps on the Sudanese border at the height of the famine, and most of the Ethiopians who perished in Sudan were children and old peopleof which there were very few in the resettlement program.
Father Jack Finucane, the head of Concern, an Irish aid group in Addis Ababa, saw the death rates in an article I wrote for The Wall Street Journal about Culwral Survival's report. He told a group of 60 foreign aid workers assembled on October 19, 1985 at the headquarters of RRC, the relief agency of the Ethiopian government, "I've read it and I don't believe it'" Finucane said that in visits he and other members of Concern made to the resettlement area, there were no indications of any such horrors. But as it wrned out, one month earlier, at a private meeting at the Hilton Hotel where only Westem ambassadors and some aid officials were present, Finucane told a different We: about a half million people were being displaced in "horrible conditions '" Of 77 resettlement areas, only two or three had succeeded, he said. In a July 29, 1985 letter to his home office, Finucane wrote it was safe to assume that 25 percent-or 125,000-of the settlers had died.
Finucane's reversal, whereby he independently confirmed the main points of Cultural Survival's Sudan-based research, offly to deny it all at a public forum in the presence of Ethiopian officials, was laid out in a November 3, 1985 article by David Blundy in the Sunday Times (of London). When Blundy, then one of the paper's leading foreign correspondents, asked the chair of the Band Aid coordinating committee in Addis Ababa, Brother Augustus O'Keefe, about the discrepancy, O'Keefe replied, "That was a private meeting [the meeting between Finucane and the ambassadors]. I won't talk about it. The press have done a lot of damage here. I have never heard about any problems with resettlement."
It was a familiar pattern: back up the research of Cultural Survival and Berliner Missionswerk, the Swiss relief group, in private, but condemn it in public -lest they be expelled from the country. The Red Cross League, for example, did a study on resettlement in the summer of 1985 that corroborated much of what Clay's resettlement swdy had found, including the death rate. But the report was kept secret.
The spinelessness of the aid community in Addis Ababa was demonstrated a few months later, in December 1985, when the inevitable happenedone of the ir own went public about the appalling consequences of resettlement. Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF), a French relief group, published a report ent"Mass Deportation in Ethiopia," alleging that with a death rate of 20 percent, as many as 300,000 people were likely to die in the resettlement program, of which up to 100,000 already had. The report noted that "one of the most massive violations of human rights" was "being carried out with funds and gifts from international aid." The French group quickly was expelled from Ethiopia, while the rest of the aid community chastised the group for getting involved in "politics" when it should have been keeping its nose to the grindstone of relief work. The kiss of death to the French group's presence in Ethiopia was administered by the United Nations, which publicly defended resettlement by saying that the French organization's charges could not be taken seriously because it was the only group in the field making such accusations.
The missing New York Times
In early 1986, MSF took its case to the court of U.S. public opinion, which barely paid attention even though the United States was providing almost as much aid to Ethiopia as was the rest of the world combined. A Washington press conference, among other activities, got the French doctors onto the front page of The New York Times for a day and into the editorial pages of several important dailies. But the story had difficulty making the evening news on the major networks because there was no footage of the settlers being abused. Also, this was the period of the Challenger disaster. Therefore, the impact of MSF's revelation on the general public was marginal. The daily news media, by this time obsessed with the southern part of the African continent, did little to put the findings into perspective or to investigate the matter further The editorial page of The Wall Street Journal was a constant exception to this rule, but like all opinion pages, it didn't have quite the credibility of a hard news section, and the page's conservative slant meant that liberals often distrusted it.
A breakthrough of sorts occurred in early March 1986, after Blaine Harden of The Washington Post and Charles Powers of the Los Angeles Times visited a Damazin refugee camp. The refugees on whom Cultural Survival's study was based were at Damazin for months in 1985, but few members of the media had bothered to interview diem. Even after Clay and Holcomb's report was published, joumalists tended to write about the skeptical reaction in the relief community rather than to hunt down the acwal victims in order to hear firsthand accounts. Harden had planned to do this, but as he explained to me, "I had a whole continent to cover and after several straight months in Ethiopia and Sudan, just as I heard about the Damazin story, I had to do a stint in West Africa." By the time Harden was able to return to Sudan, the refugees had been scattered to oflier locations, but another group of about one thousand had arrived from Ethiopia, and this group had been through an experience that was far more horrible than the experience of the people whom Clay, Niggli, and Holcomb had interviewed. As Harden wrote in his story, which ran March 11, 1986 in the International Herald Tribune:
"The dismal odyssey of the young Ethiopian mother began last spring with a false promise of free food in the Ethiopian government resettlement program . . . . En route, she said she was forced by Ethiopian soldiers to abandon her two children. She said she watched her husband the of disease in an overcrowded transit camp. After fleeing Ethiopia, she said, she was robbed, beaten, raped and held as a slave by Sudanese rebel soldiers."
The rebels belonged to the Ethiopian-backed Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), which was at war with the Khartoum government and in control of the jungles on Sudan's southeastern frontier The escapees from resettlement fell prey to the rebel soldiers in the bush just as the Vietnamese boat people fell prey to pirates on the high seas. According to interviews conducted by Khartoum-based relief officials, several hundred Tigrean women and children escaped from resettlement camps only to be taken into captivity by the SPLA. The women and girl children were raped repeatedly, while the boys were forced to become fighters.
Harden pointed out in his article that "the stories told here... .come not from outsiders, but from peasant farmers (who) in 13 separate interviews. . . .told a remarkably consistent story." He and Powers spent two days at Damazin doing nothing but interviewing a completely new set of refugees, and both reporters came up with exactly the same information as had Clay.
Harden's report triggered a moving editorial in The Washington Post a few days later but not much else. The television networks as usual were preoccupied elsewhere. Yet what I find particularly disturbing was that at no point in 1985 or 1986 did The New York Times send a reporter to Damazin. Neither Clifford May, Nairobi-based Sheila Rule, nor anyone from the Times Cairo bureau had ever gone there. Even the best newspapers cannot be expected to cover every single story, but the reftigees at Damazin were at the center of re whole resettlement controversy, and they were available to joumalists for months at a time. The rimes dudifully editorialized about resettlement and reported the controversy in the relief community surrounding it, but the most prestigious daily in the United States never probed the issue in the same aggressive manner in which it had probed human rights violations of far lesser magnitude in other areas of the world, particularly the Middle East and South Africa.
It is intriguing that resettlement received so little attention in the United States. The manner in which Ethiopians died evoked re well-known slaughter of millions of Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge in the mid-1970s. Yet not only was the U.S. public more concerned about the abuses in South Africa but both the media and the public also evinced more interest in the fate of a few hundred South Korean students who had been detained by the police than about tens of thousands of peasants in Ethiopia who had been starved, beaten, and worked to death in a veritable jungle gulag.
As I see it, the fundamental flaw in the resettlement story was that it was a foreign news item with no domestic spinoff. Because the United States, despite its generous aid, was not influential in Ethiopia-and had not been for a decade-it was a tragedy for which the Reagan administration bore absolutely no responsibility. Although private donations to certain charities were indirectly assisting resettlement, as were public donations from other governments, USAID always was careful to channel U.S. aid to relief operations unconnected with the program. Thus, there was nothing to dig up against the administration, and the herd instinct in the media never was activated. Even after the MSF visit, joumalists almost never raised re mader at State Department briefings. Ethiopia had been ,'lost" years before, and U.S. interests were not being jeopardized by the inhumane actions of Ethiopia's regime. Perhaps the story would have attracted more interest if the deaths had been the work of one of Africa's colorful, lunatic madmen, like Idi Amin or Muammer Gaddafi. But the communist rule of Lieutenant Mengistu Halle Marian was too efficient for that, and the killing had little mass market appeal.
The media, however, bore only part of the responsibility for the limited public outcry. The response of the U.S. government was equally disappointing. On the face of it, the Reagan administration did all that normally could have been expected. Chester Crocker, assistant secretary for African affairs, spoke out against resettlement on a handful of occasions. USAID administrator M. Peter McPherson rarely missed an opportunity to bash the Ethiopian authorities over the head about it. Richard Schifter, who replaced Elliott Abrams as the human rights assistant secretary (when Abrams became assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs), made the investigation of resettlement abuses a priority. Finally, there was Alan L. Keyes, the assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs and now a candidate for the United States Senate from Maryland. As a black, Keyes was perhaps in a better position to publicly articulate what many others were saying only privately. On March 6, 1986, he told the Senate subcommittee on African affairs:
"Those who condemn ale white government of South Africa for its injustices against blacks but who do not even wish to verify the injustices that may be perpetrated by Ethiopia's government against its people obviously imply that a higher standard of human rights is to be applied to whites than to people of other races and colors."
Nevertheless, if ever there were an issue tailormade for a president who was forever searching his 3 x 5 file cards for examples of why fighting communism around the world was not just a strategic imperative but a moral one as well, it was resettlement. Resettlement was the issue Ronald Reagan had been waiting for all his presidency. But when did President Reagan ever speak out about it? Maybe he did, once or twice. If so, it was a reference too obscure for even Ethiopia experts to remember.
If not Reagan, why not Bush, at least? Bush did criticize the resettlement program on a handful of occasions in the context of his trips to Africa, but he never really jumped on it in Washington. As one State Department official observed cynically, "Bush should have taken on resettlement as his issue. If ever there was a guy who needed-and was always looking for-his own issue it was Bush." Resettlement was perhaps the only cause available to him at the time that was original and would have helped to shore up his credentials among conservatives, without alienating the moderate elements in the Republican party.
Some felt that the reason resetdement never made it past the door of the State Department was that Chester Crocker stood in the way. According to this theory, Crocker's overriding obsession was his South Africa policy. He had gotten his job on account of his views on South Africa, and his performance as assistant secretary was being judged solely on how he implemented the m. The last thing he needed was another complication to further erode his already strife-tom policy toward that country. Therefore, he seemed to some observers to be gun-shy about having the White House launch a frontal human rights attack against a black African regime at a time when President Reagan was being chastised for his indulgence of the white minority government in Pretoria.
Abrams told me: "There has to be some kind of pressure from a human rights group for a human rights issue to be considered legitimate. U.S. government statements alone can't do it. And for a long time, human rights groups were saying nothing about resettlement because a lot of democratic governments were assisting the Ethiopian Marxist regime. Human rights groups of the left were certainly reluctant to criticize. The U.S. government's criticism therefore looked political rather than humanitarian. And remember, at the time we were in the middle of a struggle over South Africa. You have to ask: if re Reagan administration hit the government of Ethiopia hard, who would support us and who would criticize us? Would the main effect be to help the people of Ethiopia, or merely to add fuel to the fire over our Africa policy? I think part of the problem is the reluctance of human rights organizations to criticize left-wing governments."
Abrams's remarks contained a subtle and fascinating contradiction: first, he suggested that the Reagan administration did attack the Ethiopian government for its resettlement practices, but then he implied that the administration didn't. I strongly suspect that Abrams, one of the more ideologically motivated of Reagan's political appointees, felt that as much as the administration did to publicize human rights abuses in Ethiopia, it could have done even more. I think he, as well as others, felt that had the administration wanted to pull out all the stops, it had the power to make resettlement a big media issue.
Those who discounted the conclusions of the U.S. government, Culwral Survival, MSF, Berliner Missionswerk, and others usually argued that resettlement was a necessary step toward the prevention of future famines, even if, for the time being, it was being carried out badly.
Resettlement, however, was just one aspect of collectivization. The other, much larger, component was villagization . In 1984 and 1985, the government managed to resettle about 500,000 of the 1.5 million people targeted; the program was resumed again in 1987 after the last unsteady flickers of the media spotlight had been snuffed out, But in roughly the same time frame, 1984-1986, ten times that many people-approximately five million-had been uprooted through villagization, with another 27 million scheduled for the same fate by the mid-1990s.
Kulaks in the bush
Villagization-a more grandiose, amorphous, and incomprehensible program than resetdement-made even less of an impact on the outside world. The basic outline of the fate of millions of peasants, mostly Moslem Oromos, under villagization, was not in dispute. The army would move into a group of villages, requisition the crops and livestock, and force the inhabitants to tear down their huts piece by piece. Then the peasants were made to walk, with the remnants of their homes on their backs, to a new, central location that had been selected by party cadres. The site almost always would lack a mosque, a school, and an adequate, nearby water source. But it would come equipped with a guard tower, a red flag, and a banner of the Workers' Pan of Ethiopia. Villagization happened deep in the bush, far away from the diplomats, television camera crews, and other Westem monitors, and it was too great a cataclysm to be grasped through the medium of the print alone.
Moreover, the most descriptive and penetrating article about villagization was an October 3, 1986, cover story in the French news magazine L'Express, which isn't read in the United States. Although effectively written articles and editorials on the subject did appear (notably in Newsweek, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal an almost all were published in mid-1986, long after the Ethiopia story had been submerged by developments in South Africa. While resettlement came to light too late to make a strong impact, villagization came to light even later.
However, unlike resettlement, villagization had no real defenders in the Western relief community in Addis Ababa. Even the Swedes, who in the past had been the most sympathetic to Marxist-style agricultural experiments, publicly criticized villagization and reduced their aid budget in Ethiopia on account of it. Among the most important reasons for this is the fact that villagization was more blatantly ideological than resettlement was. Mengistu had spoken out openly against "kulaks." And in a separate swdy done in Somalia on escapees from villagization, Cultural Survival reported that, indeed, all those interviewed had been relatively prosperous farmers prior to being "villagized."
In the face of these realities, nobody believed that the program was meant to combat drought, famine, and underdevelopment, as ale Ethiopian government authorities claimed. Yet, although nobody defended it, no Westem government really condemned it either. Even the Reagan administration's criticism was muted, compared to the way it attacked resettlement. Rarely in modern times have so many people had their human rights abused in so organized a fashion with hardly a whimper of real protest.
The utter brutality of the experience was far worse than the Newsweek and L'Express articles had suggested. In the first months of 1986, 50,000 Moslem Oromos escaping villagization stampeded over the border in Sonmalia, where they were temporarily put in a squalid refugee camp called Tug Wajale B, located a few miles from the Ethiopian frontier In the spring, Jason Clay of Culwral Survival and Lance Clark of the independent, nonprofit Refugee Policy Group in Washington, D.C. , went to Tug Wajale to interview the new arrivals about their experience in Ethiopia. AH the Oromos interviewed told a similar story of a whole way of life being systematically destroyed-not only by the razing of ancestral villages but through a deliberate policy, implemented by re army, of wrecking mosques, raping women, and removing children to far-off schools.
Officials at the State Department in Washington sad that the main reason why a greater protest wasn't made against villagization was because, unlike in the case of Cultural Survival's resettlement study, the United States was unable to verify independently the stories told to Clay by the refugees in Somalia. Was it really necessary to have independent verification for every gory detail before the State Department could scream bloody murder? Even in the most controlled and manipulated circumstances, journalists who were taken to showcase sites in Hararghe with Ethiopian government guides could not escape the feeling that something awful was mung place. One doesn't have to read between the lines of Sheila Rule's June 22, 1986 story in The New York Times (buried on page 11) to get this message:
"There is little free access to the new villages and government escorts, or 'minders,' are ever present. The authorities choose the areas that visitors are allowed to see. . . .
"An elderly woman, asked for her views [on villagization], replied at length, her words sounding as though they were steeped in anger. When she finished, the [government] interpreter's translation was: 'I don't know. I am an ignorant woman" "
I decided to go to Somalia to hear the refugees' stories first hand. It took me a week to get a visa from the Somalia embassy to Nairobi and then to get onto one of the twice-weekly flights to Mogadishu. Once in Mogadishu, the U. N. High Commission on Refugees assisted me with the rest of my journey, which included another plane flight to the steamy port of Berbera in the north; from there a UNHCR Land Cruiser drove across the entire width of northern Somalia, first to Hargeisa, where I spent the night, and then finally, to Tug Wajale, where I slept in a sleeping bag inside a drafty tent on the freezing windy plateau. The return journey to Nairobi took just as long. Several members of the Nairobi-based foreign press corps also made the journey at one time or another in 1986. But because T'ug Wajale could not be done as a "quickie," practically no one from outside Africa came to the story. (The only exception I am aware of was Philip Revzin of The Wall Street Joumal, whose report was published May 26, 1986.) Thus, only a handful of articles appeared about the testimony of the Oromo refugees, and almost all of those were buried on inside pages.
I interviewed 14 refugees at Tug Wajale B and another nearby camp in three days at the end of October 1986. Almost all of the interviews were done in isolation. The refugee was moved by Land Cruiser to an area out of earshot of his or her compatriots, where I spent, on the average, about 90 minutes talking to the person, The translator I used was not a member of the Oromo Liberation Front or any other political organization I know of, and he had been highly recommended to me by several foreign relief officials. I tried hard to avoid asking leading questions, and I sought constantly to ferret out inconsistencies in the stories I heard, so much so that one of the women I interviewed accused me of being hostile. Despite all of these precautions, I was impressed with the consistency of the accounts. All, interviewed separately, told more or less the same story Nothing I heard was substantially different from what Jason Clay or Lance Clark had reported, even though some of the people I interviewed had arrived at different times and were in a different batch of refugees from the ones Clay and Clark interviewed. I was wamed that refugees were prone to invent tales of political persecution so that they would be considered by the U.N. as bona fide "refugees," instead of just as drought victims who were liable to be sent back to their country of origin after agricultural conditions improve. But my interviews proved otherwise. These escapees, who had lived in isolated villages, spoke only Oromo, and probably encountered white foreigners for the first time in theirlives at Tug Wajale, simply were not sophisticated enough to recognize bureaucratic distinctions-some not every relief official could recognize. Yet not only did few want to believe the refugees, as in the case of resettlement, few even wanted to listen.
Villagization went on unabated and thereby paved the road to the next famine by uprooting the way of life of the country's most successful group of farmers. In 1987, foreign donors were helping to make up cereal deficits in 22 of 39 regions of Hararghe, which prior to villagization traditionally had registered surpluses. Thus, large amounts of Western aid were subsidizing communism, albeit indirectly, while charities such as Live Aid were serving to buttress a ruling elite that had destroyed the lives of more of its own people than had any other government in this decade, with the possible exception of Iran's, and that consistently had refused to negotiate a truce in a war that had killed hundreds of thousands. Clay's frequent assertion that Westem aid in the long run could kill more people than it saved in the short run was neither farfetched nor unfair.
Meanwhile, partly on account of the uproar raised by the U.S. government and MSF, resettlement ground to a halt in January 1986. But it got rolling again in March 1987. The first mention of this appeared near the bottom of a story on Ethiopia, written by correspondent James Brooke in The New York Times (March 13, 1987), The article labeled resetdement "controversial." The New York Times correspondent also noted that the Ethiopian government planned to resettle only 30,000 people a month, which was half the rate of the 1984-1985 period, thereby indicating perhaps that resettlement would be less "hurriedly executed" and therefore somewhat more humane. If it eventually turns out that resettlement-if not villagization-was truly reformed, then the Reagan administration and a few human rights and relief groups deserved the credit. The media's overall response to Ethiopian collectivization was remarkably passive.
For a time at least, U.S. journalists were as ubiquitous in Ethiopia as they have been in Nicaragua. But as Arch Puddington wrote in Commentary, while "the Nicaraguan revolution has been subjected to a microscopic examination," the one in Ethiopia, which has led to the deaths of many more people, "has been largely ignored."
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|Author:||Kaplan, Robert D.|
|Date:||Sep 1, 1988|
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