Page last updated at 00:10 GMT, Friday, 23 October 2009 01:10 UK

Lasting legacy of Ethiopia's famine


Mike Wooldridge looks at today's famine fears

By Mike Woolridge
BBC world affairs correspondent, Ethiopia

It is now well over two decades since Mesele Adhena gave up all hope of being able to remain in his village of Bezeta, and came to this market town in the highlands of northern Ethiopia.

"Had we stayed," he says, "we would all have died."

As it was, three of his close relatives died in the famine of 1984, that had its epicentre in this region and at the time made the northern Ethiopian town of Korem a byword for starvation on an epic scale.

I was a member of the BBC team that eventually reached here and the town of Mekelle, that resides further north, in October 1984.

Mesele Adhena, centre, and his family at home in Korem
We did not work night and day before, but we do now.
Mesele Adhena, famine survivor

It was a time when the then government had denied journalists access in an attempt to keep the rapidly worsening impact of the famine hidden from their own people - and from the rest of the world.

Tens of thousands of people had already trekked to these government-held towns - that was in the midst of the protracted conflict with Tigrayan and Eritrean rebels - and many more were to follow.

We found scenes that one aid worker memorably described to us as "the closest thing to hell on earth" - exhausted, often woefully thin, hungry people trying to find food.

There were a few corrugated iron shelters for them in Korem and Mekelle, but they were crowded, and as many people seemed to die in the shelters as on the open ground around them.

People had to bear the penetrating chill of highland nights, most in only the flimsiest of clothing.

They had made heroic efforts to survive in their own communities for as long as possible.

Michael Buerk reports on the famine in Ethiopia - first broadcast October 1984

But they told us how successive droughts and failed harvests meant that to even attempt to buy food they had to sell off their livestock, and sometimes even the materials they had used to make their homes.

There were also heroic efforts being made to save lives in in Korem and Mekelle, and towns like them, but they were all too often undermined because there was simply not enough food.

There was also the problem of disease in these congested conditions, disease that would easily take hold.

Within weeks, a shocked world was building up an unprecedented aid operation.

But there were still dark, dispiriting days while reporting from relief camps and towns across the famine-affected region.

I recall an occasion when 134 people died during a days reporting I spent in one such camp. There had been an outbreak of measles, and many of the victims were children.

Mesele Adhena working hard tending his crops in Korem
Mesele Adhena says harsh lessons were learnt from the 1984 famine

Even though the population is now close to double what it was in 1984, and many people have smaller plots to cultivate, today's Ethiopian government maintains that enough progress has been made in improving the early warning signs of famine.

Helping farmers withstand drought on anything like the scale of 1984 is a priority and could not happen again, it asserts.

Many ordinary Ethiopians would say the same. But there are many, too, whose anxiety deepens with every crop failure, as is happening in parts of the country once again.

Harsh lessons

Mesele Adhena stayed in Korem after the famine rather than return home. He is 47 now and he and his wife have six children.

They live in a small house that has been built on a plain on the edge of the town, where he and so many thousands of others arrived in desperation during 1984.

Farmer in Kobo ploughs his plot of land
Some crops are withering in Kobo and farmers have future concerns

He grows food in the plot around the house and more in the fields beyond. And he says he has learned a lesson from the 1984 famine - how much more efficiently farmers can protect their livelihoods if they work hard.

"We did not work night and day before," he says, "but we do now."

An hour's drive down an escarpment near the small town of Kobo (also a relief centre in 1984) I talked to farmers who are seeing their crops wither this year - despite doing everything they could to save them.

They said it was the government's food-for-work safety net scheme that had kept their children from the risk of losing their lives.

Much more is known now about how the most vulnerable can be kept from the edge of deadly hunger, and it was the tragedy experienced in Korem and the surrounding region that taught the harshest lessons.

But one man I have met here said he hoped that now - 25 years on - Korem would be remembered by the world as less a place of death and more where so many lives were saved.

Ethiopia map

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