Eritrea: The Forgotten Famine

Benjamin Joffe-Walt

The most under-reported nation on earth, Eritrea may be starving.

When one thinks of secret, reclusive nations, North Korea comes to mind. When repressive regimes are being discussed around the coffee table, Burma, Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe often get discussed. But analysts and human rights advocates say the tiny, forgotten East African nation of Eritrea is equally deserving of both titles.

One of the most difficult to access nations on earth, reporting on Eritrea is like trying to see through a wall. Tourists are rarely allowed in, political or civil society organizations are non-existent within the country and calling an Eritrean to speak about the situation is likely to endanger their lives. But Eritrean activists, both inside the country and in exile, claim Eritrea is in the midst of a unnoticed, severe humanitarian crises.

“The humanitarian situation in the country is alarming,” Mussie Hadgu, an Eritrean human rights activist, told The Media Line. “The majority of the Eritrean households have been suffering from hunger and do not have the means to cope with the effects of drought and other economic and social problems.”

“There are some families that stay without eating for one to two or more days,” Hadgu said. “Some families eat once per day and yet the one meal per day constitutes a small portion of the meal that is consumed in normal situations.”

“When I say meal I am not making reference to the meal that is provided in normal situation,” Hadgu continued. “Some families divide what is supposed to be one meal in normal times into three 2-3 meals, giving only small pieces of “Kicha” to the children at various intervals throughout the day.”

“The drought has a great negative impact on the animals due to the shortage of pasture,” Hadgu said. “The absence of animals has caused the population to suffer from malnutrition. The most affected groups are children, lactating and pregnant women, and the big number of severely malnourished children referred to the health facilities for therapeutic feeding is a clear indicator of the seriousness of the humanitarian situation.”

Hadgu said begging and forced migration is common throughout the country.

“The reduction in the quality and quantity of food consumed is one of the coping strategies adopted by the affected households,” Hadgu said. “But when the only meager resources are being exhausted and the people are in a situation where there are no means for accessing food by any means, at this point they resort to begging activities.”

“Begging is done in two ways,” Hadgu continued. “Migrating to areas which have harvested some crops during the last season: Whole families and even entire villages migrated during the last harvest time to neighboring areas or even to far areas extending as far as about 350 kilometres. Migration is done mostly on foot, begging on their way from village to village until they reach the last destination where to settle temporarily.”

“The second is migrating to towns,” Hadgu explained. “Whole families migrate to the towns and they camp and engage in begging activities in, and around, the churches’ and mosques’ premises. The flux of begging families into the urban centers has added to the ever increasing numbers of beggars in the towns due to rising poverty level in the towns.”

Tesfamariam Tekeste, a senior Eritrean diplomat, argued that international food aid was not necessary and had many negative consequences on the recipient society.

Eritrea has already told the food dist agencies that Eritrea doesn’t need food aid,” he told The Media Line. “Food aid in a normal situation cripples a society and the mentality of people. People stop praying for rain and start praying for rain in the donor countries.”

“Food aid had become an industry in Eritrea,” Tekeste said. “It leads to lots of corruption, theft and bureaucracy and creates dependency when people need to learn to work.”

“We have the land, we have the water, we have the manpower,” he continued. “What we need is farming equipment, fertilizer, seed and other technology.”

“Food aid should be in a disaster situation for elderly people who really need it, like what happened in Haiti or Chile, then we will ask for food aid,” Tekeste concluded. “For now the international community should be encouraging us. We are making our living ourselves.”

But various human rights groups have accused the government of expropriating crops from households that were able to harvest some crops, imposing restrictions on the crop trade, forcing certain farmers to resettle, criminalizing begging, preventing nutrition surveys and refusing to allow international aid agencies to work freely in the country.

“The cause of the famine is mainly the wrong and destructive policies of the government,” Elsa Chyrum, Director of the Eritrean Human Rights Concern, a London-based Eritrean human rights organization, told The Media Line. “One of the government policies that have caused poverty and famine are the tying up of the productive segment of the population in the endless national service with no payment.”

Eritrean men are forced into indefinite military service. Human rights activists say may of these soldiers have been killed in Eritrea’s various wars, killed trying to escape the country, or are in prison for refusing to serve or various political reasons. Among those who are not killed and allowed to return home, a large number have HIV or have suffered serious trauma, be it from torture or prolonged military service.

A compounding factor in the famine has been overpopulation and deforestation, particularly in the highly-populated mountainous highlands of the country.

“The increase of population has resulted in a decrease in land holdings, lack of or little grazing lands, diminishing the complementary benefit that was obtained from animal production,” Chyrum said. “The animals provide the energy needed for the ploughing the land and serve as pack animals. They also provide milk, meat and other products that are useful to the households and serve as security and insurance during economic difficulties. In the past during droughts, the vegetation and availability of pasture or some trees on which animals could graze, had enabled some of the animals to survive and provide food to the households even at hard times enabling the households to maintain their resilience from the effect of the drought. Nowadays this is no more the case.”


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Posted by on Apr 2 2010 Filed under News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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