How the war in the Gulf affects the famine in Africa

Jeremy Harding

Ms Sandra Heaney was sitting in the Acropole Hotel, having failed to leave the country. Not Greece – she was 1500 miles from the shores of the Aegean in a dusty, impoverished tip of a city. The Acropole is a Greek family business in Khartoum. The proprietors and the picture on the hotel stationery are the only connections with Athens, both of them tenuous.

Stranded in Khartoum, where it can take a lot of effort and good fortune to organise a prompt exit visa, Sandra Heaney was much nearer to Riyadh, Kuwait City and Baghdad than to any European capital. Had she taken a lively interest in world affairs, the Gulf would have been the focus of her attention just before Christmas.

The Sudanese Government under President Omar Hassan Ahmed el Bashir, an Islamic fundamentalist backed by the highly influential Muslim Brotherhood, served early notice of its support for Saddam Hussein. The British and Americans in Khartoum were already laying plans for the safety of their citizens in the run-up to war. Their main source of worry was not the regime but the anti-Alliance elements in Sudan which might take wildcat reprisals against expatriates. In 1988 the Acropole was bombed by members of the Abu Nidal group; the operation was a resounding success. Patrons of the Acropole are on the whole Westerners; on the whole, aid workers. Seven of these were killed.

None of this bothered Sandra. There were at least four weeks to go before the war and, for what it was worth, she was neither British nor American but Australian. She was a midwife who had been posted to a health and nutrition programme in Sudan’s Red Sea Province, on the border with Eritrea. By the time she applied for her exit visa, conditions at the project were her sole preoccupation. She was planning, reluctantly, to take a few weeks off and return to the province, war or no war. I assume that is what she did.

A terrible drought (yet another) has taken hold of Sudan and Eritrea. The numbers threatened by famine (yet again) are high. Six million people, one-third of Sudan’s rural population, is at risk. In Eritrea the figure is smaller, but the population, already culled by war with the Ethiopian Government, is at most four million strong. Of these, over half are probably in jeopardy. In the neighbouring Ethiopian province of Tigray, matters are equally bad. The Horn alone accounts for half of the individuals in Africa facing starvation.

Three other countries, besides Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea, are in serious trouble: Angola, Mozambique and Liberia. Although climate is a significant factor in most cases, war is also responsible for this new round of African famine. The governments of Angola and Mozambique have slugged it out with South Africa and its friends for more than fifteen years; Liberia has been torn apart by tribal strife since the middle of last year. In all three cases there are more sets of figures, should we require them, but the statistics themselves have become shorthand platitudes.

Sandra Heaney had some more intelligible figures about the project at Gadem Gafrit (her rough translation: ‘a green place between the hills’). The first number she gave was three; it came up in a discussion of the drought. She could remember distinctly the three days that rain fell on Gadem Gafrit in 1990. There was a day in January, an afternoon shortly after the end of Ramadan in April and another afternoon in November.

Rain patterns in north-eastern Sudan and Eritrea vary with altitude and proximity to the coast. As a general rule, however, the best rains should fall between June and September with ‘small rains’ in April and, in some places, towards the end of the year. The families in the camp at Gadem Gafrit, about two thousand of them, have not had a successful cereal or vegetable crop since January 1990. The drought in 1989 was also severe, but Gadem Gafrit lies in the wide drainage below the hills of northern Eritrea and, even when rainfall is poor, there is normally a limited supply of water in its wells. Two successive years of drought have dried this up. In desperation, new wells were dug last year, but the water became salty. By now, most people are in serious trouble.

The families that have come to the project were already facing considerable hardship. Sandra explained that most of them were Beni Amer, a nomadic tribe spread either side of the border between Eritrea and Sudan. They trade, raise livestock and, with the growing pressures for settlement, engage in some form of limited crop production.

All the Beni Amer at Gadem Gafrit speak Tigre, which is the language of lowland Eritrea. Eritrea has been disrupted by war for thirty years. Most of the Tigre speakers came to camps in Sudan between 1985 and 1990. Until late last September, they were still saying that air raids by the Ethiopian Government had driven them from Eritrea. During the last three months of the year, as the number of new arrivals in Gadem Gafrit climbed sharply, the effects of bombing were no longer given as the cause of displacement. Instead, the Beni Amer told of a drastic water shortage inside Eritrea.

Sandra Heaney was worried that the drought, and the impending famine, would be worse than the catastrophe of the mid-Eighties. Eight out of ten families who arrived had no livestock left; even their camels were dead. Some women had left their husbands, often elderly, to die on the journey out. Three one-year-old children were under half their expected body weight and all the others were malnourished. Yet the thing was only just beginning.

Sandra had noticed something else. Children between the ages of five and 15 could look very healthy (she spoke of their ‘beautiful round faces’), but when you put them on the scales they were 15 kilograms underweight. These, she said, must have survived the 84-85 famine and continued to live normally until another drought took hold, whereupon the weaknesses caused by the first ordeal guaranteed a steep and sudden decline in health. For every malnourished boy, said Sandra, there were two malnourished girls. ‘Women eat last and they eat least and these girls are coming into womanhood now.’

Most of Eritrea is now under the control of the EPLF, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front: the main Front among several Eritrean groups which have resisted Ethiopian domination since 1961. Eritrea was once a developed Italian colony, quite distinct from the inchoate feudal mass to the south-west known as Abyssinia. After 11 years of British rule, it was given in federation to Emperor Haile Selassie in 1952; ten years later he annexed the territory outright. Through the Sixties and the early Seventies, Ethiopia’s war effort was bolstered by US military supplies. By the end of the Seventies, the Marxist-Leninist military government which had replaced the Emperor began receiving training, expertise and large consignments of matériel from the Soviet bloc. The Eritreans have been at war against two superpowers (but only one proxy) for a long time.

As though war were not enough, they have also had to endure ten years of poor rain and two major famines since 1970. They are now about to reel under a third. Curiously, drought and famine have helped the process of political consolidation, for the EPLF and its relief wing run the most effective aid operation in Africa and civilian populations who might well have had a low opinion of the Front – there are nine ‘nationalities’ in Eritrea – are obliged to it as a result. Relations between the Beni Amer and the EPLF are something of a mystery. Sandra believed that the Front, who have the rare gift of combining minimal bureaucracy with a faith in paperwork, keep separate health records for this group because they are so difficult to monitor. In general, however, rural and nomadic populations are eager to come in under the EPLF’s wing during times of intensive bombardment and hunger. After two years of drought, total crop failure in 1990 and an ominous loss of livestock, the question is whether the EPLF can sustain the kind of support it has managed to provide until now or whether it is not already stretched to capacity.

Part of the answer lies in the military situation inside Eritrea, where matters have changed dramatically in the last few years (see LRB, 15 October 1987). For most of the Eighties, the EPLF was chiefly confined to a terrain of dusty lowland and barren mountain in the north and west of the country, while Ethiopia’s Second Revolutionary Army held control of all the main towns in the fertile highland areas to the south and the vital port of Massawa on the Red Sea coast.

In 1988 the Eritreans poured out of their fastness, broke the Ethiopian front near the Hagar mountains and pushed south to capture the garrison town of Afabet. In February 1990 they moved south and took Massawa. At the end of last year the new front draped down south below the port, curved inland and tightened round the capital, Asmara. As matters now stand, the EPLF is dug in to high positions within fifty kilometres of Asmara while the Second Revolutionary Army is restricted to a small enclave around the capital and, miles further south, to the unimpressive port of Assab, on the edge of the Danakil depression.

All this means that the EPLF has a far greater responsibility, in terms of sheer numbers, than it did during the famine of 84-85. Unlike the Government of Sudan, which has sold off its grain reserves in the Gulf to pay for a war of its own, the EPLF appears to take its duties seriously. It has sunk dozens of wells since the last famine and struggled to get agricultural schemes working against the heavy odds of climate. Night after night (the convoys are in danger of being bombed by day) it hauls grain and water hundreds of miles to resettlement projects and distribution points ingeniously camouflaged deep in Eritrea.

Most of this relief comes through Sudan, which gives the EPLF sanctuaries along the border and offices in Khartoum. This cross-border operation is lengthy. Supplies are for the most part unloaded at Port Sudan. In an emergency, the vagaries of Sudan, including mismanagement at the port, limit the amount of relief that enters Eritrea. On the other hand, the efficiency of the Eritreans ensures that the most is made of what is given. There are few places in Africa about which one could say the same thing with confidence.

Last December, an agreement was reached between the EPLF, the Ethiopian Government and the UN World Food Programme to unload relief at Massawa, whence it will be distributed on a fifty-fifty basis for the benefit of people besieged in the government enclave and those in EPLF territory. The first shipment has already arrived. That is a very encouraging sign.

The situation is critical now, but the impact of famine can be greatly reduced if the world responds well to the tardy appeals launched in January. Eritrea is far more seriously affected than most of Ethiopia, where harvests have varied. It would account, potentially, for a high proportion of famine casualties. But there is now an infrastructure of trucks, resettlement areas, distribution centres and even modest water storage facilities in EPLF territory, while the agreement over Massawa guarantees the passage of relief to the people, probably one million, facing equally serious problems in the government enclave. Without regular food donations, which in turn depend on international sympathy, many of these will die. The EPLF, meanwhile, will be unable to provide for the new population under its control.

Before Christmas the British government announced that £7.2m would go in emergency aid to Africa. An appeal to the British public launched in mid-January raised nearly £2m in ten days and money continues to come in, albeit at a slower rate. After much alarmism about ‘donor fatigue’, the aid agencies are relieved by the response so far. There is nonetheless genuine concern about events in the Gulf. Were the conflict to widen, the movement of shipping through the Suez Canal could be affected and regional airspace could become hazardous, with obvious repercussions for aid deliveries. For the moment these are only ‘scenarios’ for Africa. Meanwhile a more immediate effect of the war is already impeding the relief effort. For the news crews who are normally content to relay images of African disaster – distraught mothers, children turning prematurely into little elders, dry fields, dead cattle – are massed on the other side of the Red Sea. A hundred and fifty miles of water and 800 miles of sand separate the coast of Eritrea from Dhahran, but in terms of news priorities, the distance between the two is inestimable. Editors have done their best to sustain public interest in the famine but it has not been easy. Our hunger for war bulletins is now absolute, and when we are satiated, there may simply be force-feeding. As this feast drags on, the Horn will be lucky if a few crumbs of coverage arc tossed its way.

The Middle East has never held much solace out to Eritrea. Two of the most important protagonists in the Gulf war, Saudi Arabia and Israel, have also been assiduous dabblers in the Horn. As the Eritrean movement shifted away from its conservative Muslim base in the early Seventies towards a higher representation of Christians and a more democratic style, the Saudis used a policy of selective funding to engender divisions among the fronts, which then erupted into factional strife. By 1975 the EPLF had emerged from the turmoil as the most effective force in Eritrea, and the Saudis had failed to stop the rot of secular democracy. Saudi support has fallen in a steep curve ever since and the EPLF is quick to point out that the Gulf states have never raised a penny for famine in Eritrea. The argument that the Eritreans are merely a tool of Arab ambition in the Horn, advanced with some justification in the Sixties, is much less true today. But it is a view that Christian Ethiopia is keen to encourage.

Israel is happy to subscribe to it. The Eritreans may have no taste for Arab or Muslim hegemony, but an independent Eritrea would certainly establish links with Arab states. The issue, however, is not Eritrea so much as the integrity of present-day Ethiopia itself. As a non-Muslim country in an Islamic region, Ethiopia is an obvious ally for the Israelis. The relocation to Israel of Ethiopia’s black Jews, the falashas, is an expression of this alliance and affirms it in the eyes of the diaspora.

Great claims are made about the historical affinity of Jews and Ethiopians, but practical co-operation dates clearly from the Sixties, when the Ethiopian empire was ruled by the Lion of Judah and Washington was still the ringmaster. In annexed Eritrea the Israelis trained and armed a special commando of some three thousand Eritreans and kept them in the field against rebel forces until 1973.

In 1976, after a break in relations, the new government in Addis asked IDF advisors to assist once again. Arms and spares went from Israel to Addis for a further two years. To this day the Eritreans and independent sources claim that Israel helps to maintain the Ethiopian Air Force and upgrade the weapons at its disposal. In any case, it is a fact the Ethiopians are dropping cluster bombs – the antithesis of the ‘surgical’ weaponry we are now lavishing on Iraq – in Eritrea.

These weapons, used frequently against Eritrean civilians, are not supplied by the Soviet Union, nor directly by America. The chances that Addis receives them straight from Israel were once thought to be high, but last year a Chilean defence expert, Raoul Sohr, alleged that they were being supplied by the Chilean arms manufacturer, Industriales Cardoen, at the request of the Israelis, in a deal negotiated while Pinochet was still in power. Cardoen, it is believed, was of great interest to the British journalist, Jonathan Moyle, at the time of his death in Santiago last March. The company supplied Iraq during the war with Iran and was rumoured last year to be equipping Saddam with advanced missile systems.

Three months ago as the attentions of the world were converging on Baghdad, the EPLF was closing down its offices and moving out. Although his Cold War alliance with the Soviet Union ensured that Saddam Hussein was not at liberty to supply the EPLF on any regular basis, Iraq allowed the organisation offices on its soil (so does Syria, so did Kuwait). After 2 August, however, Addis Ababa sought to tar the Eritreans with the Iraqi brush by circulating fake EPLF documents in strident support of Saddam’s invasion.

The Eritreans were struck by the irony of this splendid Ethiopian effort, just as they were by the sight of the UN, still not formally notified that Ethiopia annexed their own country by force 29 years ago, leaping to the defence of Kuwait. As they went to war last week, the Alliance leaders hinted that a new regional (and possibly world) order was now on offer. An excellent prospect, but there are bound to be queues around the block for this attractive issue. How long might the Eritreans (let alone the Palestinians) expect to stand in line before a former CIA chief invokes the works of Tom Paine in defence of their right to buy in?

In October the Eritreans condemned the invasion of Kuwait. Little of interest here, any more than when their parents spoke out against the annexation of their own country in the Sixties. If Sandra Heaney was too absorbed by the fate of the Beni Amer to take an interest in the Gulf, it is even less likely at the moment that the world will want to know about conflict in Africa. But if the signs of mass famine are ignored, enthusiasm for the frenzied interventions in the Gulf may well be confined to the developed world.