Thousands of tons of food for Ethiopia's famine victims are pouring in to this once sleepy Red Sea port every day but aid officials say the supplies are still not getting the priority they should and are unnecessarily delayed.
Journalists who visited Assab recently saw 40,000 tons of U.S. wheat being unloaded from the Danish bulk carrier Torm Herdis, which brought the first shipment of American government-to-government aid for Ethiopia's 8 million famine victims.
Longshoremen load the grain sack-by-sack onto trucks that carry it hundreds of miles into the arid hinterland. When the trucks have been loaded, the workers sweep up grain spilled from the sacks; hardly any is wasted.
40 More Army Trucks
Ethiopian officials have said that about 40 Soviet-built army trucks have now been added to the fleet taking the grain from Assab to the hungry. The announcement was apparently intended to counter Western criticism that the army is not doing enough to help the hungry. But it had little effect.
The next day, Desmond Taylor, deputy representative of the U.N. World Food Program, accused the Ethiopian government of failing to cooperate fully in the handling of relief supplies at Assab.
Taylor said the amount of food unloaded each day from ships at the port had fallen from 5,000 to about 3,000 tons and ships were waiting up to eight days for a berth rather than the maximum four days that had been anticipated.
"This is disappointing, particularly in view of assurances at the highest level that emergency food supplies would be given priority," he said.
His statement, issued by the U.N. Office for Emergency Operations in Ethiopia, said unloading had slowed down "because of the port authorities' inability to keep three of Assab's six berths permanently available throughout the emergency for food supplies as originally envisaged."
Taylor said the grain was also moving slowly to famine areas because there were not enough trucks. Only 1,900 metric tons of food were being moved a day, rather than the target of 3,000.
The United Nations says only 50% to 70% of the 4,300 trucks available to the National Transportation Corp. are roadworthy at any one time and not all are used for relief work.
Taylor said unloading of ships should improve considerably once $1.5 million worth of British and Dutch grain-handling equipment goes into operation at the end of April.
"I think the authorities are trying the best they can. We want faster evacuation from the port area . . . and we are also hoping to get three berths purely for relief supplies," he said.
If it were not for the mountains of grain from the United States, Canada, West Germany, Australia and other food producing nations of the West, there would be little sign of famine at Assab. The port workers' club on the edge of town has lighted tennis courts, and journalists were given a huge lunch there of spaghetti, roast beef and potatoes, washed down with beer.
"The meal is also to feed the Ethiopian journalists in the group," an Ethiopian official said when asked why the club had laid on such a lavish meal when millions were starving.
There are signs of tension, too. An army base with dozens of Soviet-made tanks is visible from the airport road. There are also gun emplacements in the surrounding desert.
The weapons are a reminder that Ethiopia feels threatened by its neighbors, especially Somalia, as well as by rebels in its own Tigre and Eritrea provinces.
Assab is in Eritrea, where the guerrilla war has been going on for about 20 years.