Sharing the Tragedy of Ethiopia : Americans Come Face to Face With Reality of Starvation

Kieser is executive producer of Paulist Productions and president of the Human Family Institute

Late in November, at the invitation of the Catholic Relief Services, actor Cliff Robertson, attorney Richard Riordan and I flew into Addis Ababa, the capital of war-ridden, drought-stricken, famine-ravaged Ethiopia.

Our purpose: to immerse ourselves in the situation of the people there, to capture as much of it as possible on film and videotape, and to return to the United States to share our experience of Ethiopia's agony, so that the American people might decide how best to help alleviate it.

Overview Given

Briefings by personnel of the Catholic Relief Services and the U.S. Agency for International Development gave us the statistical overview. Of 42 million Ethiopians, 7 million were perilously close to starvation. In the last 10 months, 300,000 people had died.

The statistics give some idea of the problem's magnitude. But they don't prepare you for the devastating, yet somehow awe-inspiring, reality of the refugee camps.

We visited six of these feeding centers--Mariam Tesfai, Quiha and Seharti-Wehareb, in Tigrai province, near Makalle, and Korem, Bati and Harbu in Wollo Province, all in the northern part of Ethiopia, where the drought and the civil war have combined to intensify the lethal effects of the famine.

Six weeks before we arrived, several of these camps did not exist. Now they are the size of small cities, some having upward of 40,000 inhabitants.

These people have streamed in from the hills, deserting their villages, sometimes walking three or four days--drawn by reports of food, drawn by the hope of food. Some huddled together in large sheds with only a plastic roof to shelter them from the sun and icy wind. Others lived in tents. Still others lived in the open. Of Korem's 40,000 inhabitants, 10,000 had no shelter.

Sanitation in the camps is primitive; health care is in no way adequate. Despite the heroic efforts of the personnel at Harbu, when we visited it there were 500 cases of measles, widespread dysentery, more than a few cases of hepatitis and jaundice, and a fever of unknown origin.

Drop in Death Rate

In the Makalle camps, the famine seemed under control. Food and medicine was streaming in via the nearby airfield, and the death rate had dropped to 20 a day--a significant improvement from just two weeks before.

In Mariam Tesfai, the kids were going to school, and their most frequent request was not for money or for something to eat, but for a pen. They wanted to read and write.

But the situation was very different in the other camps. In Korem, they need 50 tons of grain a day in order to adequately feed their people. The camp director told us they were lucky to get 10 tons. They lost an average of 101 people a day. We visited the tent morgue at 11 in the morning. Already that day, 35 people had died.

In Bati and Harbu, the situation was similar. American, Canadian, Australian and European Economic Community food was getting through, and its delivery from port to camp was most often handled with speed and efficiency by Catholic Relief Services. But there wasn't nearly enough of it. In Harbu, 35 to 40 died every day. In Bati, despite the dedicated efforts of the Red Cross personnel, the death toll frequently went over 100. Sometimes in Bati, people died before they had a chance to be registered. Many died and were buried without ever having their names recorded.

I spent four days in those refugee camps and feeding centers, spotting scenes for the cameraman, but also trying to be present to the people in their pain, shaking hands, expressing concern, relating as best as I could, without being able to speak their language. What was it like?

An Innate Joy

I was prepared for the hunger and destitution and need of these people. But I was not prepared for the tremendous sense of dignity that they exude. The Ethiopians are a handsome people. They are possessed of an innate joy and outgoing friendliness which, under the circumstances, is little short of miraculous. They are not content to shake your hand; they insist on taking it into both of theirs and kissing it. One elderly couple wanted to kiss my feet. That these people, suffering such deprivation, should exhibit such hospitality and joy, is hard to comprehend. Perhaps they have something to teach us about where happiness is to be found and what life is all about.

In an orphanage near Korem, which is run by Save the Child and cares for 8,300 youngsters, I walked into the huge shed where more than 1,000 of these children were sitting. As soon as they saw my white face, they started to clap their hands and chant, " Ferenji , ferenji ," which means foreigner. They did so, not with the pejorative overtones so often associated with that word, but with joy, affection and gratitude: For them, foreigner means help. It means food. And that's what they need more than anything else.

The refugee camps and feeding centers were crowded with children. Walking around their camp, they would follow me--first out of curiosity, then out of friendship. Sometimes I had half a dozen kids holding on to each arm, their jet-black faces lit up by the white teeth of their beautiful smiles.

But these were the healthy kids. And most of the kids in the camps were not healthy. They were hungry and they were sick and sometimes they were dying. These are the ones I will never forget.

A starving adult is hard enough to take. But a starving child--I saw thousands of them--that's too much. Their arms and legs are thin as pencils. No fannies. Just hanging skin. Their bellies swollen, as if at age 3 or 4 they are nine months pregnant. Their skin pulled tight over their ribs, so you can count every one. Sometimes they would smile or even sing. But sometimes they cry--not a loud, lusty bellow like an American child, but a soft wail.

Being with these people, sharing their pain, even for so short a time, was a great experience for me--painful, yes, but also very enriching.

What hit me most forcefully is the terrible reality of their situation. In fact, it's so real that everything else seems unreal. The things we spend so much time worrying about--how we look; what other people think of us; what things we have and what we don't--these things seem so unimportant, so futile in the light of the situation of these starving people.

Jesus tells us that God lives in a very unique and special way in the poor, the hungry, the naked and the homeless. I have always believed that. But in Ethiopia, faith became experience. These people are so real--God is so obviously present in them--that I felt like kneeling before them. In their presence, my overwhelming emotion was reverence.

I doubt that, in our lifetime, we will ever again have the opportunity to do so much with so little. In Ethiopia, a dollar feeds a child for a week, and for that child, the food it supplies may very well be the difference between life and death.

We can find God in the poor and hungry. We may not be able to find Him any other place. It may be just that the poor and hungry people of Ethiopia have more to give us than we have to give to them.

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