Dust to dust: A special report from Ethiopia

'This has become an apocalyptic landscape, a place where nothing can survive'
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There are no vultures. Even vultures need water. So when the cattle die they lie where they drop. In the lonely, wind-blown desert you can see their final hoofmarks, baked by a sun which does not yield even after death. The brittle hoof prints move in a gently undulating line, leading you to a carcass from which every drop of moisture has been evaporated by the desiccating heat.

There are no vultures. Even vultures need water. So when the cattle die they lie where they drop. In the lonely, wind-blown desert you can see their final hoofmarks, baked by a sun which does not yield even after death. The brittle hoof prints move in a gently undulating line, leading you to a carcass from which every drop of moisture has been evaporated by the desiccating heat.

This is the flood plain of the Wabi Shebele. In good times it is the busiest caravan route in Africa, where processions of camels and cattle can daily be seen in long migration from Somalia to Ethiopia along the edge of the Great Rift Valley, which stretches from the Red Sea through Kenya and Tanzania and down to Mozambique.

In good times. But these are not good times for the nomads known as the Hoolo Dacado. Their name means people of the rain, for they take their homes of thin bent branches, covered with grass or woven mats, and load them on their camels and donkeys and move through the marginal desert scrub, casting their eyes always ahead for the thin haze of green on the horizon which indicates the transient bloom of grazing which springs up overnight whenever localised rains fall.

But there is no rain here now in the lowlands of the Ogaden in the extreme south-eastern corner of Ethiopia. Nor has there been any for the past three years. Instead, this has become an apocalyptic landscape of hot, bare stone and leafless, scrubby thorn bushes, across which thin, eddying pillars of dust whirl like an advancing line of devils from some infernal army.

It is a place where nothing can survive. There is no water even in the deep holes dug by the desperate people in the crazed bed of every wadi. Today, almost all the cattle in the region have perished. Everywhere across the dusty grey sand their scorched cadavers lie, the skin pulled taut across bulbous bones, their legs shrivelled and twisted, their eyes blank staring sockets, their parched necks stretched back as if in a last desperate search to keep open throats swollen with thirst.

Now even the camels have started to die. And the people, too.

There are freshly dug graves each morning outside the town of Gode, where the small population has been swollen by 24,000 nomadic pastoralists whose livestock have died and who have moved here in search of water and of the grain which they have heard the government is distributing.

There are new graves, too, in the makeshift refugee camp which has sprung up outside the smaller town of Dinan, to the north. The earth is newly turned, with a stick planted in one end, and stones and bits of thorn scrub positioned around, as if to afford the protection in death which their occupants were denied in life.

They are small graves, for they contain children, their fragile bodies wrapped in lengths of cloth which their mothers have all too often removed from their own still-breathing frames.

They have died from kidney failure, after drinking thick water residues that have become heavy with salt. They have died from bloody diarrhoea, or malaria or what their mothers call "the coughing". They have died from the sheer frailty which comes from not having sufficient to eat.

Some 6,000 displaced people have been drawn to Dinan to cluster around a single pump. They have been arriving for six months, walking as many as 200 kilometres to get there. More arrive day by day.

One of them is a woman called Muslima. Her story is much the same as those of her neighbours in the huddled camp. It took her 10 days to walk in merciless heat to this place from the spot where the last of her cattle died. Before the drought she had 100 cattle and goats. That did not make her rich, but it afforded a comfortable life by the standards of a pastoral nomad.

The animals gave milk to her four children every day. She would sell beasts in the market to buy grain. Occasionally the family would slaughter one for the special treat of meat. But one by one the animals stopped lactating and the children's vital protein supply dried up with the withered teats. The price for them fell in the market, as the price of grain soared. Once Muslima had had camels, whose milk would have lasted longer, but her husband sold them a decade ago when Saudi Arabia began to buy meat on the hoof from Ethiopia - until Rift Valley Disease caused a BSE-style scare in Saudi and the rich nation began to import beef from Australia.

One of Muslima's children had died since she arrived in the camp three months ago. By her side her five-year-old son, Abdir, stood stark naked, his head and belly swollen,his limbs as thin as dry twigs. As a photographer approached, he stepped back and pulled his mother's skirts around his loins. The photographer moved on, to find a child who was too far gone to be ashamed of his nakedness. He did not have far to look.

And yet, devastating though the drought may be to individuals such as Muslima and her dead child - and young Abdir, who may too be dead by the time you read this, for there are no aid workers providing intensive feeding in Dinan - this is not a famine on the scale of the tragedy which seized the Ethiopian highlands in 1984/5 when as many as a million people are said to have died. Today, the situation is not as grim as that. Not yet.

It has been difficult to get food aid to the nomads for a number of reasons. Most obviously, that is because it is only when all their animals have died and their traditional coping mechanisms - of moving, sharing and hunting for wild berries - have been exhausted, that these wandering people stagger, like their dying cattle did, to a place from which they are too exhausted to move any more.

But the Ogaden region has other problems, too. It is administratively the weakest of Ethiopia's federal regions, with its huge area and sparse population. And it is run by feuding warlords from five of the seven main clans who spill over from Somalia. Those distributing more aid to one clan than another blunder, however unwittingly, into politics of the bloodiest kind. A driver from Médecins Sans Frontiÿres was killed in his food-aid lorry only six weeks ago.

Elsewhere - on the high Abyssinian plateaux where years of drought turned to ghastly famine on a biblical scale in 1984/5 - food aid is being distributed, albeit in rations much smaller than the average family can live on.

The government, which has operated an effective early-warning system for more than a decade, is distributing grain from its Food Security Reserve. In the highlands, though the rains have not come and the crops have failed, farmers and their families still remain in their villages.

But the food stores are running out. They should have been replenished with grain pledged by Western donor nations - but the rich world last year broke its promises and did not deliver the grain it had contracted to give. There is a cargo from the United States of some 85,000 metric tonnes - less than three weeks' rations for the hungry areas - due in Djibouti a week on Tuesday. After that, however, despite a number of tardy pledges by the international community in recent days as the skeletal children have begun to appear on the world's television screens, the arrival schedule of the country's Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission is bare.

A typical pledge of food, especially from the more bureaucratic organisations like the EU, takes five months to arrive. And food for the hungry season - July to October - has to be in place within the next 10 weeks for, ironically, if the long summer rains do arrive, they make roads impassable and rural areas inaccessible quagmires where food can be distributed with only painful slowness.

Outside the wire fence at the therapeutic feeding centre in Gode this week I saw one of the town boys peering in at his unhappy compatriots. He was wearing a T-shirt. On it were emblazoned in block capitals the words: "Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." It seemed an apt judgement on all that the West has offered the hapless people of Ethiopia in recent times, despite all those pledges at the time of Live Aid that "this must never be allowed to happen again".

Of course, there are no easy answers to a problem as complex as this. Global warming undoubtedly has its part to play in a shift in weather patterns which has cheated Ethiopia of its rain and dumped it cruelly upon Mozambique. Yet drought in other countries does not turn to disaster, unless they too scrape such a marginal existence, even in the good years, that they live constantly on the edge of disaster and can be pushed over the edge by the smallest crisis.

Long-term development is the answer to that, which means better soil and water management schemes, improved farming techniques and building roads to get goods to market. That is needed for years after the television cameras have gone. It may also mean changes in government policy. Already, since the overthrow of Mengistu, the bloody dictator whose Soviet-style command economy exacerbated the last great famine, farmers in fertile areas have been freed to sell their surpluses on the open market. But radical land reform may also be needed to avoid the ever-growing population breaking down farms into smaller and less viable plots.

Security is not just an issue among the feuding Somali warlords. Change, too, is needed in the hostility between Addis Ababa and its northerly neighbour, Eritrea, which invaded Ethiopia two years ago, provoking a war which keeps two armies on a state of high alert amid fears that border clashes might break out again at any time.

Yet it is important not to make too much of this. There is no fighting at present, and the amount the government is spending on its military is only a third of what it once was. Allegations by Western donors that trucks used to transport army rations should be used for aid ring pretty hollow when there was not, last month, a single delivery of food aid to the ports on which Ethiopia relies. In the end, Western indifference and promise-breaking has been a far more grievous threat to the starving than any acts of local politicians.

It is not too late for the rich world to save the situation. As I walked through the feeding centre at Gode I noticed something different to those terrible serried camps in Korem, and all across the highlands, through which I walked with blank horror 15 years ago. There was no smell.

All of those massive camps in the Eighties shared a common stench. It was a mixture of dust, diarrhoea and despair. For me, that fetid odour became the smell of death, and it has haunted my nostrils ever since.

Today it is not there. If Western politicians act quickly now, it will not, please God, return to stalk the land of Ethiopia again.