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Ethiopia’s Resettlement Program is Focus of Controversy

January 11, 1986 GMT

URUNA KIJANG, Ethiopia (AP) _ This village and dozens of others are what the government says is the future for 1.5 million Ethiopians being resettled from the drought-ravaged north.

“It is a humane program, but unfortunately one that has been criticized in the West,” said Berhane Deressa, deputy commissioner of Ethiopia’s Relief and Rehabilitation Commission.

“One part of the land is overpopulated, overcultivated, and as a result, people have been starving. On the other side, there is ample land and water.”

But critics, particularly the United States, have accused the Marxist government in Addis Ababa of gross human rights violations: herding people at gunpoint to resettlement villages where they are kept under armed guard, separating families and diverting transportation and resources which could be used for famine relief.

M. Peter McPherson, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, told a news conference in Washington last month that resettlement is a “vast human tragedy of historical proportions.”

In an interview here, Berhane commented: “It is not a watertight program we are running, but these are not deliberate problems as other people are alleging. Even in the best of the camps you see shortages. There is a lack of sufficient medical programs, the basic infrastructure is poor. But these are nationwide problems, not just in the settlements.”

The most damning criticism of resettlement came from the French volunteer agency Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders). MSF alleged that 100,000 Ethiopians have died while being resettled and that the program threatens to claim as many victims as the famine itself, estimated at up to a million people.

“I’m not going to say people are not dying. People are dying everywhere in Ethiopia,” Berhane said. But he and other Ethiopian officials contend that without resettlement Ethiopia is left with “two bad choices - abandoning people or continuing aid indefinitely.”

“What happens to these people when so-called ‘donor fatigue’ sets in?” Berhane asked, referring to a decline in foreign aid. “And what happens to the morale of people, some of whom have been in refugee camps two to three years?”

The MSF report said aid workers, diplomats and journalists rarely are allowed to visit resettlement areas. It said its death estimates were based on interviews with volunteers at departure points and with Ethiopians who fled resettlement villages.

The government ordered MSF out of the country Dec. 2, citing what it called its “politically motivated allegations.”

Since resettlement began in November 1984, nearly 600,000 people from the Tigre, Wollo, Shoa, Gondar and Gojjam regions have been resettled, Berhane said.

The government said it is first resettling people from refugee camps, not from villages. They are brought to the south aboard jampacked buses and trucks or in Soviet Antonov-12 aircraft from homelands denuded by deforestation.

“Every effort is being made so the same ecological disaster will not happen in the south,” Berhane said.

Since last March, about 5,000 people were brought to Uruna Kijang, in the Illubabor region near the border with Sudan.

In Amharic, Ethiopia’s national language, Uruna Kijang means “judgement under the tree.” For outsiders, whose visits to Uruna Kijang and other resettlement villages are tightly controlled, it is difficult to make an accurate judgment on resettlement.

Uruna Kijang seems a model village, though the government insists it has no “showcase” resettlement camps. It has a school, a clinic with a full-time physician, a library with shelves of Marxist literature, a “brewery” where heaps of maize (corn) ferment in the sun and neat rows of “tukuls,” the traditional Ethiopian huts of clay, straw and eucalyptus wood, each with a garden.

It is a day’s walk in most of the north to find firewood for cooking and heating. Here, the government must burn off acres of trees and bulldoze others to clear the ground for farming.

In contrast to the barren deserts and savannahs in much of the north, huge communal fields of sorghum and maize and small family plots crowd the landscape around Uruna Kijang.

Still, officials said the people in resettlement villages, including Uruna Kijang, are given food aid until their first harvest. They insist no donor food is used in resettlement.

The resettled villagers of Uruna Kijang were reluctant to talk to outsiders. But Berhane and other Relief and Rehabilitation Commission officials conceded that some families have been split and that everybody was not happy about moving.

“You just don’t leave your home without any feelings,” said the commission’s chief spokesman, Tafari Wassen. “But it’s a question of whether they are going to see the rest of their family die next year, or are they going to come here where they can plant a crop?”

Berhane added: “We have a crisis on our hands. We can’t allow people to live in shelters indefinitely. When you talk about voluntary, non-voluntary, you are not talking about people being moved at the point of a gun.”

Those who are moved have to make a myriad of adjustments. In the oppressive heat of southwestern Ethiopia, children run about in the same heavy, woolen sweaters they wore in the cool highlands.

The village physician, Dr. Tekola Yeheyese Haile Selassie, said malaria is near epidemic at Uruna Kijang and other resettlement villages because the highlanders carry no resistance to the mosquito-borne disease. There have been deaths, but no one would offer an estimate.

Life here appears more regimented than in the north, where many of the resettled villagers were nomadic.

Villagers work from 6 a.m. until noon in the communal fields. The afternoons are free for work on family plots, but an adult education program is mandatory in the late afternoon.

Every Sunday a political meeting is held in the huge, dusty courtyard outside the village’s biggest building, the Marxist party headquarters. An official said the meetings are voluntary “but everybody wants to come to learn.”

A Western diplomat, speaking only on condition of anonymity, said he made a surprise visit to Uruna Kijang while on a trip to a neighboring resettlement village and found the setting to be “an armed camp” with militiamen deployed around the settlement.

But no weapons were in sight during a more recent visit by Western journalists and a representative of the World Food Program.

During the pro-Western rule of the late Emperor Haile Selassie, who was overthrown in 1974, the United States supported a resettlement scheme in Ethiopia, albeit less ambitious than the current program.

James Cheek, U.S. charge d’affaires in Addis Ababa, said the United States was not against resettlement in principle.

“What we are specifically opposed to is the non-voluntary nature of the program - the selection, the transport and particularly the violation of human rights and the use of coercion,” he said in an interview.

Some Western governments are assisting resettlement, Italy in particular with a pledge of $150 million. Non-governmental Western aid agencies also are helping.

“Unfortunately, the major relief donor, the United States, whose giving has been second to none, is dragging behind on this, neither making donations, nor offering an alternative,” said Berhane. “Some people criticize because we are using Russian planes instead of Boeing 707s.”