Mired in Filth, Ethiopia's Ex-Soldiers Wait to Go Home


The sound of weak coughing rattles around the makeshift hospital. Scantily clad patients lie shoulder to shoulder on plastic-covered floor mattresses, staring into space.

The stench of urine and untreated sewage pervades this camp of 18,000 ex-soldiers, remnants of what was once black Africa's largest and most professional army.

After years fighting rebels on behalf of ousted military dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, the foot soldiers of Ethiopia's defeated army now languish in their own filth, anxiously awaiting demobilization and the chance to restart civilian life.

But for many, freedom will come too late.

Disease has reached epidemic proportions, straining the camp's already limited resources to breaking point. After an initial improvement the death toll is creeping up again.

"Six died on Monday alone, it is going to be around between 20 and 25 a week again soon," said Clare Nourse, an Irish doctor with the International Red Cross.

She said the worst problem is relapsing fever, which can kill. It is spread by body lice that thrive in the camp's cramped, unhygienic conditions.

Also rampant in the camp are tuberculosis, malaria, severe diarrhea, syphilis and gonorrhea.

"Many of the soldiers have sexually transmitted diseases, often at a chronic stage because they have gone untreated for so long," said German nurse Regina Stadler.

At night, prostitutes from the nearby village come to the camp. About 65% are believed to carry the AIDS virus.

The Red Cross is helping run nine camps throughout Ethiopia while the transitional government--made up of several former rebel groups--works to dismantle Mengistu's vast fighting machine.

Most of the camps were set up shortly after Mengistu was overthrown last May and his bedraggled, demoralized army surrendered, finally ending years of civil war.

About 250,000 ex-soldiers--many kept in a dozen camps not administered by the Red Cross--are still being held from an army that once numbered at least 350,000.

At this camp, ghost-like figures, their heads shaven to prevent the spread of lice, while away the hours playing cards or chatting around scores of smoldering camp fires.

At night, several hundred men huddle together in stinking shelters.

Some weeks ago, 12 were murdered during a spate of night killings and their Red Cross blankets stolen.

"They sell the blankets in the local market to get money to go home with. A good one can go for anything between 35 to 55 birr ($16 to $25)," said Patrik Richard of the Red Cross.

He said two men accused of the killings were stoned to death after a quick trial by a "people's court."

Crime in the camp--the largest in Ethiopia--is widespread as the men try to raise cash to pay their way home.

"I have no money. I am helpless. If I had some money I would go tomorrow. Here you have a chance only of dying," said Birhanu Ayela, 40, a mechanic who fought for four years against separatist guerrillas in the Red Sea province of Eritrea.

Theft of giant plastic water tanks, taps, bits of roofing, blankets and clothes for sale in the local market is an almost daily happening.

Technically, the ex-soldiers are not prisoners but are awaiting demobilization.

Security by the forces of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, which took power after Mengistu fled, is lax. But if the men leave without official papers, they forfeit food handouts and rehabilitation grants.

Many soldiers prefer to take their chance on the outside with what little they can scrape together, and the camp's population has dropped from 32,000 to 18,000.

Those left are often the weakest. Others have lost touch with their families and have nowhere to go.

Western diplomats have been urging the Front-dominated transitional government to speed up demobilization.

"The problem is the government is broke and does not have the money to finance fancy rehabilitation schemes. On the other hand it is also frightened of having lots of these guys hanging around the country as a sort of loose cannon," one ambassador said.

He said the United States, the European Community and the rest of the international community have pledged money to help, but not much has yet arrived.

Other diplomats accuse the Revolutionary Front of deliberate foot-dragging on demobilization in an attempt to squeeze more out of the donor community.

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