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Drought, war leave Ethiopia hungry again

When a family here has run out of food, it sells its livestock and hopes that there is grain in the market _ at any price. When the livestock are gone, and the money is gone, and when they have eaten the last of their grain, they start to eat the leaves from the trees just to get the feeling of having something in their stomachs. Only after that will they leave their farms and villages to gather in the camps that the outside world associates with hunger and death.

Once again, drought and warfare have brought Ethiopia to the brink of a massive famine. Emergency food shipments have been halted due to civil war, and poor rainfall has diminished harvests.

A similar situation exists in neighboring Sudan to the west.

Andrew Natsios, director of the State Department's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, estimates that the lives of nearly 5-million Ethiopians and up to 3-million Sudanese will soon be at risk.

"The next six weeks to two months are the critical period," he said. "If we don't get something to them soon, then it will be a critical problem.

"This is the worst nightmare of a relief worker _ to have a civil war and a famine right there at the same time," he said.

Famines don't start quickly, nor do they come by surprise. And here at the edge of Eritrea's western plain, and all across the other embattled northern provinces of Ethiopia, what they call the "quiet famine" has begun.

Abdel Faroit has walked nearly three days to this place _ a camouflaged depot tucked under the trees that cling to the edges of a dry riverbed. He has come to take what little food has been allocated to those in his village whose need is most desperate. But in the villages that dot this parched and barren land, desperation is universal.

In the village of Erota, a tiny cluster of mud and stick huts not far away, Mohammed Ibriham surveys his fields. In some places the traces of furrows can still be seen, but the field has been stripped. There is nothing here even for the goats, and the sun long ago baked the last of the moisture from soil.

"The spring rains did not come in time to plant," he said. "And when the late rains came we planted, but then it stopped raining altogether. Even in the places where we could conserve moisture we got almost nothing, and then the locusts came and ate that."

There is a quiet confidence here that food aid will come. Eight of the last 10 years have been drought years, and a "pipeline" has been built to bring food in to those who need it. The goal is to get the food to people before they leave their villages _ to prevent the "famine camps" where diseases spread and kill those already weakened by hunger.

But in the last 10 years there has been only one year as bad as this one. It was the catastrophic drought that led to the famine of 1984 and 1985. In that famine tens of thousands died.

The images of their suffering still haunt the world. Five years later, though, the world is as unprepared to help as it was then.

"I was there in '84 and '85," said Graham Miller of Oxfam Australia, a relief agency. "This is just as bad, but the international community has its attention elsewhere."

The United States has either pledged or delivered more than $70-million in relief so far. Last week, President Bush sent a letter to Sudanese officials asking for cooperation in restarting the international relief effort.

But fighting for the past 11 days between rebels and Ethiopian government troops at the Red Sea port of Massawa has made it impossible to get food into the country. And Monday, Ethiopian President Mengistu Haile Mariam pledged a "fight to the bitter end" to defend the port.

Massawa has been key to emergency operations, which began late last year. From Massawa, imported food supplies were transported by road to Asmara, the Eritrean capital, and to other parts of northern Ethiopia where, according to U.N. estimates, more than 3-million peasants are affected by a famine caused by poor harvests.

Analysts said Monday that 50,000 tons of food are on the docks at Massawa, but that the fighting is preventing workers from moving it. They said several docks are aflame and food may be destroyed.

Relief workers say there is no sense of urgency from the outside world that a crisis is imminent.

Food experts here estimate that it will take 696,000 cubic metric tons of food to keep the population of the drought-stricken provinces of Eritrea and Tigre fed until the next harvest. All of it will need to move down that "pipeline" _ a fragile chain of ships, warehouses, trucks and camouflaged food depots that are vulnerable to aerial and political attack.

Most of Eritrea and all of Tigre are controlled by rebel armies. The supply trucks move at night to avoid attack by Ethiopian government MiG jet fighters.

What the farmers of northern Ethiopia don't know is that the pipeline is virtually empty. Less than 100,000 metric tons of food has been promised. Of that, only 5,000 has arrived. The warehouses are empty. The trucks are idle.

In Janni, as farmer Abraham Hassinin gathers the grain he is to carry back to those in his village who need it now, he stops to thank an American reporter.

"God has sent you to send this food to us," he said. "Don't forget us. Remember to send us something. Remember to help us."

_Information from the Associated Press and Washington Post was used in this report.