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CHANGING THE FACE OF HUNGER
By Tony Hall Tom Price
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2007 Tony Hall with Tom Price
All right reserved.
Opening My Eyes, Filling My Heart
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Viewed from the twin-engine prop plane making its way north from the capital of Addis Ababa to the village of Alamata in the rebel-controlled countryside, Ethiopia showed off a rugged, oddly beautiful landscape.
As Addis disappeared behind us, plains and plateaus gave way to ridges and peaks that thrust their sharp edges into the cloudless blue sky. Rifts in the mountains suggested miniature versions of America's Grand Canyon. The bright sun and clear sky heightened the stark beauty of the scene.
Here and there a patch of green stood out. But the overriding color scheme was made up of browns and grays. Dirt and dust dominated the land. The riverbeds were dry. Crops would not grow. Forests had been sacrificed for firewood. Tree roots had been dug up for food.
Ethiopia had suffered grievously from drought in the early 1970s. In the early 1980s, famine returned. Now, in November 1984, as I made my first trip to the country, I was told that even cacti could not survive in the dry earth.
I had heard reports that two hundred thousand Ethiopians had died already, nearly a million likely would die by the end of the year, and millions more were at risk. International relief groups were issuing alarming calls for help. Television news organizations were beaming disturbing pictures of hunger into homes in the United States and other Western countries. But none of this prepared me for what I was about to experience. I have often told people that as a public official, in order to understand a situation, I have to see it, walk around in it, walk in the shoes of the people who are there. To deal successfully with an issue, I have to develop a passion for it. Passion is what enables someone to become an effective advocate, to touch other people's hearts, to move other public officials, to get the public mobilized to want to do something. That is why I felt I needed to go to Ethiopia in 1984 and why I have gone to many other such places in the years since.
The plane on which I was traveling was ferrying supplies to a camp run by the World Vision Christian relief organization. Ernie Loevinsohn and I had hitched a ride from Addis, as had two members of Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity, who had a mission at World Vision's compound. We landed on Alamata's dirt airstrip, which, we were told, had to be swept for land mines each morning because of the civil war that was exacerbating Ethiopia's tragedy.
The relief compound was surrounded by barbed-wire fence, which seemed in stark contrast to the World Vision workers' dedication to serving the poor and the missionaries' commitment to living among the neediest. The barrier was necessitated, however, by the fact that relief workers were able to help only a fraction of the overwhelming number of desperate Ethiopians standing outside the fence and needing assistance.
Thousands of severely malnourished Ethiopians had made their way to Alamata and surrounded the compound, hoping for food and medical treatment. In addition to malnutrition, many also suffered from dehydration, dysentery, malaria, cholera, and tuberculosis. We were told that dozens had died of starvation or related illnesses outside the compound overnight. Inside, three children had died just before we arrived that morning. A doctor-a Brit or an Australian, I judged by his accent-was about to make his morning rounds. He invited me to join him.
As we walked through the crowd outside the compound, hundreds of hungry people grabbed at our hands and tugged at our pant legs, begging for help. Many of the adults held up their children, trying to thrust them into our arms. They understood what the doctor was doing. Because supplies were severely limited, he explained to me, he could provide treatment for starvation to only a half dozen children each day.
"I have to pick six or seven kids that we can save," he said. The ones who seemed most likely to recover if treated would be nurtured through the several stages of recovery from starvation, receiving the food and medicine they needed. Most of the rest of the starving would die within days.
As I watched the doctor choose his next handful of patients and pass over the many, I thought of my own children, Jyl and Matt, who were eight and four at the time, the same ages as many of the starving youngsters who surrounded me. I fished my sunglasses out of my shirt pocket and put them on, as I would many times over the next few days-not to protect my eyes from the tropical sun, but to hide my tears. I would soon discover that things were even worse elsewhere.
World Vision had found a Jeep and a driver to take Ernie and me to our next destination, Korem, a village that was a one- to two-hour drive north of Alamata. NBC correspondent Peter Dent joined us.
Our Jeep was the only motor vehicle on the dirt road that wound its way up the hills to the plateau on which Korem sits. We passed some walkers and an occasional well-off person on a donkey, but mostly we were alone. The view on the ground confirmed my impressions from the air. The landscape was rugged, rocky, and brown. Everything was dry. Nothing grew.
Ethiopia had been in a state of perpetual civil war for years. The overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 had led to the establishment of an oppressive Communist dictatorship that was opposed by regional armies, especially in the north where we were traveling. The warfare compounded the effects of the famine as the government diverted relief supplies to its troops, and the fighting disrupted attempts by relief organizations to deliver supplies to the starving. These facts were at the forefront of our minds when we crested a hill and heard loud automatic-weapons fire nearby.
Our driver jammed on the brakes, turned off the ignition, and bolted from the Jeep. Nearby pedestrians dived into the roadside ditches, so Peter, Ernie, and I did the same. After lying in the dust for a few moments, I stuck my head up to look for our driver. People nearby screamed at me. Although I didn't understand their language, I knew immediately that they were telling me to keep my head down.
The gunfire continued sporadically for a while. We had no reason to believe it was aimed at us, but it was unnerving nevertheless. Lying there in the dust, we were filthy and we were scared. Finally, after about ten minutes of silence, we decided to move.
We ran for the Jeep. With our driver nowhere in sight, I jumped behind the steering wheel and took off, speeding as fast as I could, leaving a cloud of sand and dust and rocks behind us. Nobody told me to slow down. When we approached Korem, however, our apparent brush with Ethiopia's civil war lost all sense of significance. In a day of repeated shocks, this was beyond anything imaginable.
I had seen poverty as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand. As a member of Congress, I had made hunger one of my top concerns. I had helped to establish the House Select Committee on Hunger and had become chairman of the committee's International Task Force. I had sought to understand the extent of poverty and hunger in my congressional district in Dayton, Ohio. And this was not my first congressional fact-finding trip to the third world. But I had never seen anything like this. And neither had Ernie, the Staff Director of the hunger committee, who had worked for years in international relief organizations.
Tens of thousands of starving people had walked-some up to 150 miles-to get to this high, bleak plateau, having heard that food, water, clothing, and blankets would be distributed here. But their demand for help had so quickly exceeded the available relief supplies that there was essentially nothing for most of them. So they just waited, hoping for assistance that would not arrive until days after our visit. Because this was a large, flat expanse of land, it was possible to take in the entire scene at once, and it was overwhelming.
The sky was pure blue, the sun piercing. The temperature was 75 or 80 degrees-a perfect California afternoon. Except that here all the land was brown and dusty. And forty thousand to fifty thousand people were encamped here-some in makeshift tents, some in grass huts, some in wooden sheds that relief organizations had erected for the most severely ill, but most in the open. All were malnourished, some closer to death than others. They wore dusty, rough robes. Some appeared nearly naked, their clothing was so worn. Flies lit on their bodies, and they were too feeble to brush them away. They were docile, weak to the point of exhaustion because they had no food and because the cold nights further drained their nearly nonexistent energy. While Ethiopia is a tropical country, nighttime temperatures can drop to near freezing on this high plateau.
Perhaps what struck me most from the distance was the sound. Children cried. Women wailed. The sick coughed. But mostly the air was filled with an eerie, low moan. Thousands of people had simply come to the end. They just lay there, and they suffered, and they moaned, and they died.
We were told that fifty-six people had died the day before we arrived, and sixty-one the day before that. A week earlier, the death toll averaged more than one hundred people a day. The bodies would be carried to the edge of the encampment and laid out. I had never seen anyone die before. That day at Korem, I witnessed twenty-five children's deaths in the few hours we were there.
As I walked among the people, I was drawn to the children. Teenagers, weighing fifty pounds or less, were so wrinkled they could be mistaken for the elderly. I saw an eight-year-old child who weighed twenty-three pounds. These children had the distended bellies that are the telltale sign of extreme hunger. Every bone could be counted. When they died, they just stopped breathing. If a child was with his or her mother, you'd then see the mother react, sometimes with nothing but resignation, sometimes with deep grief. Some mothers hugged their dead children tightly; some lay down beside their children and sobbed. As I walked, I saw this happen again and again. Perhaps worst of all, I saw children die alone, saw adults die alone.
Our runaway driver sheepishly showed up at Korem, head down, appearing embarrassed that he had deserted us on the road. He took us back to Alamata, where Ernie and I climbed into the same World Vision plane to fly back to Addis. I sat by myself at a window, staring at the countryside below and struggling to comprehend the horror I had seen.
That night Ernie and I were invited to dinner at the home of the U.S. chargé d'affaires. Because the U.S. government disapproved of Ethiopia's Communist government, we did not have an ambassador in Addis at the time.
The chargé was away, so Ernie and I had the elegant mansion to ourselves. We had showered, scrubbed the day's dirt and dust from our bodies, and put on clean clothes. Now we were being led into a large dining room with a long banquet table that was set with beautiful silver and china and decorated with fresh-cut flowers.
Ethiopian waiters in white jackets and white gloves served us a lavish meal. I can't recall the exact menu, but the meal included salad, meat, potatoes, vegetables, bread, butter, wine, and a selection of desserts. I know we could have had seconds if we'd asked.
Ernie and I sat there, looking at each other, looking at all this food, and thinking about what we had seen just a few hours earlier. This meal, prepared for the two of us, would have fed one hundred or more of the hungry at Alamata or Korem.
Neither of us could eat. We didn't feel like talking. So we pushed back from the table and went to our rooms for the rest of the night.
I called Janet, my wife, and tried to explain what I had seen that day. But it was too hard. I couldn't talk. I tried to read, which is what I normally do at the end of the day, but I couldn't do that either. So I just sat on my bed and thought.
The next day I encountered stark evidence of the way that Alamata and Korem had changed my perspective on the world. We flew south this time, to visit a relief center serving the seminomadic Bume people near Ethiopia's border with Sudan.
Once again we flew over a brown, arid land. When we were on the ground, we again were told how there had been little rain, the river had dried up, the harvest had failed, and the Bume's primary food source at this time was the roots of trees. We saw naked children with swollen bellies. One mother told us how each family would give one or two children the responsibility of keeping the family supplied with water. They would have to walk long distances with buckets to a source of drinkable water. Sometimes a child would walk most of the day to obtain the water and take it back home.
But there was little sickness. The children had not yet descended into a severe state of malnutrition. The nakedness was normal: the Bume, children and adults, wore little or no clothing all the time. World Vision had built a warehouse, and people said food would be on the way.
I thought to myself, This isn't as bad as I expected it would be.
But, of course, it would be very bad if the food didn't arrive soon. And I worried about the people we couldn't visit because they lived in the extreme backcountry, beyond airstrips and roads and international relief organizations.
It was not until we were on the airplane during the long flight home that I could begin to sort out and make sense of what we had seen.
This was, of course, a natural disaster. Drought had caused a famine that was causing millions of people to go hungry. And this was not an unprecedented occurrence. The region is susceptible to frequent droughts. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and locust swarms are also recurring parts of the environment. When the current drought began to take its toll in the early 1980s, the nation was still suffering the effects of a great drought-caused famine from the early 1970s. The sequence of drought, famine, hunger, and starvation had been repeated in Ethiopia for centuries.
But there was more to it than that. Desperation and ignorance led to poor farming practices that exacerbated water shortages and caused deforestation, soil erosion, and desertification. The repressive Communist government did not want the world to learn of its troubles and had tried to hide the extent of the disaster, which was compounded by the regime's ideological economic policies. The civil war was killing tens of thousands of people outright, disrupting aid efforts, and creating hundreds of thousands of refugees. As part of its military campaign against the rebels, the government was blocking relief shipments to rebel-controlled areas as well as stealing food in order to feed its army. The wealthy world was taking too long to understand the need and too long to respond.
In addition to making visits to the Ethiopian backcountry, Ernie and I were able to meet with relief workers in Addis.
One man, named Solomon, described and illustrated the human-caused aspects of the disaster. He had spent a year and a half in jail because he refused to pledge allegiance to the Marxist doctrine of the government. He also was persecuted, he said, because of his Christian faith, and some three hundred Christian leaders were still in jail. He believed that Ethiopia was suffering because the government had turned its back on God, but that the suffering would make the people strong.
Others confirmed some of the gruesome stories we had heard about Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. It's true, they said, that he kept lions in the basement of his palace-visitors could hear them roar. He used them to frighten prisoners during interrogations and to frighten the Ethiopian people into staying in line.
One of the most astounding things we learned from our conversations in Addis was that the residents of Ethiopia's capital did not know the extent to which malnutrition, hunger, and death existed in their country. Their ability to travel was restricted, and their news media were controlled by the government, so they were kept in the dark.
Another thing we learned was that Ethiopia's needs were broad. While food was required immediately, we were told, it had to be the right food. And food alone would not solve this nation's enormous problems.
Two kinds of nutrition aid were needed. Now, and for a long time even after the famine finally passed, many Ethiopians would lack basic rations, such as grain, to feed their families. The malnourished and starving urgently needed special feeding regimens and medical treatment to nurture them back to health. There was great demand for medicines to treat the sick, as well as vaccinations and inoculations to protect all Ethiopians from diseases that had been conquered in the developed world. Many also needed blankets and tents. And the relief organizations required trucks to carry the supplies to the far-flung suffering communities. To prevent the endless recurrence of drought, famine, and death, relief efforts would have to include the drilling of water wells, the construction of irrigation projects, and the education of primitive farmers in effective and sustainable agricultural practices.
Excerpted from CHANGING THE FACE OF HUNGER by Tony Hall Tom Price Copyright © 2007 by Tony Hall with Tom Price. Excerpted by permission.
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