From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Sat Oct 31 2009 - 17:21:34 EST
Ethiopia on brink of famine again as Midge Ure returns 25 years after Band
Midge Ure returns to the Ethiopian villages he helped save 25 years ago with
Band Aid only to find malnutrition is once again killing children.
By Nick Meo in Ayub
Published: 6:17PM GMT 31 Oct 2009
Twenty-five years ago, the farmers of Ayub village were reduced to living
skeletons with bloated stomachs, certain of death. When emergency food
rations turned up - seemingly by miracle - they fell on them without ever
being sure how they reached the remote mountain hamlets. What most assumed
was the mercy of God was in fact the work of a softly-spoken Scottish pop
star, a man who had never set foot in Ethiopia, but who helped organise one
of the most remarkable acts of charity in British history.
This week Midge Ure, the lead singer of Ultravox and the producer and
songwriter for Band Aid, returned to Ethiopia to visit the villages which
had been swept by terrible famine in 1984. What he saw did not please him.
The crops were again withered - and once more, local children are dying
because of drought and malnutrition.
"It is desperately sad to see hungry children in Ethiopia again," Ure, 56,
told The Sunday Telegraph, as he toured an infant feeding centre where, in
the past few weeks, four under-fives have died of diarrhoea and other
Other babies were already painfully thin, and being fed on a
vitamin-enhanced, sweet-tasting peanut paste called plumpy nut, which, it is
hoped, will save their lives.
"Ethiopia has come a long way," he said. "At least children here have been
caught in time and the images aren't like 1984, with mass deaths. But the
fear is, if these people don't get more help, that's what we could see here
His trip, to mark 25 years since Band Aid, was planned months ago to show
how life had got better in villages which were a once a byword for terrible
poverty. Clinics and schools have been built, and a rudimentary system of
modest welfare payments has been set up to give a modicum of security to the
poorest, who always perish first in a famine.
But Ethiopia's rural population still depends on rain to grow crops, and now
they have gone three years of drought in a row, just as they did during the
early 1980s. As a result, villagers who survived 1984 and prayed it would
never happen again are once more at famine's edge.
Back then, those with the strength to do so in Ayub village dragged
themselves ten miles to a place called Korum, where they found an isolated
Thousands were saved there - but for many of those already in the latter
stages of starvation, it was too late. They died in droves. The horrific
scenes of filth and death were recorded for a television broadcast by the
BBC journalist Michael Buerk that shocked Britain and inspired an
extraordinary relief effort.
"The bodies of my neighbours lay in their huts, with their families either
dead, or too weak to bury them," said Shashe Fentau, 45, with a shudder of
horror at the memory. We only survived then because of food aid.
"Now we have eaten all our stores and we are selling our cattle. It feels
like the same thing is happening again. We are very scared. We have little
to eat. In our village we know that hunger doesn't kill you quickly. It is
slow to take effect."
Mrs Fentau, a mother of five, did not recognise the foreigner who turned up
in her village last week with aid workers from Save the Children UK, asking
questions about life and death in Ethiopia's highlands. She had no idea that
Ure may well have saved her life a quarter of a century ago.
It was after watching the harrowing BBC broadcast that he and ex-Boomtown
Rat Bob Geldof galvanised a group of pop stars to form Band Aid and produced
the single "Do They Know it's Christmas?", which raised millions in famine
The food they bought was sent to villages like Ayub, much of it hurled out
of the backs of aircraft - the only way of getting it to mountain
communities, which at that time had no proper roads.
Unlike 1984-85, when a million died, there are good roads now, while the
Soviet-backed military regime has been replaced by a government which shows
rather more interest in its peoples' survival. Yet Ethiopia remains the
fifth poorest nation in the world, according to last year's World Bank GDP
figures, and is once again at risk of mass starvation.
Ure arrived last week just as Ethiopia's government issued an urgent appeal
for donors to feed 6.2 million hungry farmers and their families. The World
Food Programme estimates that 125,000 metric tonnes of grain are needed, at
a cost of £54 million, to fill the gaping hole in the nation's food
Aid groups fear the real number at risk may be more than double that -
putting more than one in ten of Ethiopia's 80 million people at risk -
because another 7.2 million depend on a government welfare scheme that is
only intended to tide peasant farmers over for a hungry spell before the
harvest. This year, the crops lie withered in the fields in much of the
country, including Ayub village.
Dressed in a baseball cap and casual shirt, Ure looked more like an aid
worker than the flamboyant rock star whose hit Vienna re-defined the New
Romantic sound of the early 1980s. He visited without an entourage or PR
executives, flew the 8-hour journey from London in economy class and stayed
in a run-down hotel in the highlands with no hot water that cost £13 a
night. He brought with him his 14-year-old daughter, Kitty, so she could see
what life was like in an African village.
"I first came here in 1985 on a transport plane and stayed for 12 hours," he
said. "I swore I would never return. I went to a feeding centre outside
Addis Ababa for children who were supposed to be on the mend. Three babies
had died that morning.
"It was full of skeletal children with extended bellies. It was horrifying -
just too much to handle for a 29-year-old pop star."
But on this trip, he spent his time speaking to farmers, experts and
officials, discussing crop yields, deforestation, rainfall patterns, and
rural demography with a knowledge well beyond that of the average celebrity
doing their bit for charity. One other star, who visited Africa on a private
jet to promote a disease prevention campaign recently, was unaware that
malaria was transferred to humans by mosquitoes.
Ayub village is typical of the Ethiopian highlands, with thatched, round
mud-huts ringed by cactus and thorn hedges to keep out herds of long-horned
oxen. The animals wander dirt tracks, kept in order by small boys with
sticks who take them out to graze.
Groups of smiling schoolgirls with braided hair and patched clothes walk
past on their way to the local school building - a sign of progress. Despite
its tragic past, the region has become a tourist attraction, with
backpackers drawn by its beautiful mountain landscapes.
Ayub took years to recover from the disaster of 1984; since then the
population has doubled, as it has nationally. But that has forced farmers to
divide their land into ever-smaller plots for their sons, and to cut down
the surrounding forests for fuel, destroying a source of forage they had
relied on at times of hardship.
The landscape is still surprisingly green; yet most farmers suffer real
hardship because the rains did not fall at the right time for their crops.
"When the rains don't come, hope is lost," said Teshome Laile, a 48-year-old
health expert with Save the Children.
"The government does care about the people, unlike the old regime, but they
don't have enough resources, and the problem is big. Agriculture is not
modernised, farmers are dependant on rainfall. So if rain doesn't fall,
farmers are in trouble."
Mrs Fentau, a survivor of 1984, gestured at a sickly, thin crop of maize
next to her hut, which had not received enough water to produce anything
Ure admitted that the feeling of achievement he felt at visiting villages
kept alive by Band Aid in the 1980s was tempered by the fear he could see in
the eyes of farmers now.
"I think there is a good chance that a lot of people we have met survived
years ago thanks to food paid for by Band Aid," he said. "They are alive
because people in Britain simply bought a record.
"But these lands are still desperately poor. What could really change things
here is long-term development, if money could be raised for that. Saving
lives is newsworthy. Long-term development is boring."
Band Aid has raised £150 million since the record was released, and it still
generates money every Christmas. Ure admits that it wasn't his finest song –
the singer Morrissey, a critic of Band Aid who claimed the project was
self-righteous, once described listening to it as "torture". Ure is more
combative, however, over the claim that pop stars use charity work to
promote their own careers.
"I do this kind of thing because I think it is important to try to help," he
said. "You don't sell any more records by doing this, there is no ulterior
motive. The charities ask celebrities to make these trips because they work
in attracting public attention."
He added: "It did its job and has a place in many people's hearts. The money
raised was a drop in the ocean really, but it still saved a lot of starving
people. We made charity cool for a whole new audience – before Band Aid,
giving had been a worthy thing, confined to do-gooders and Blue Peter."
Today, though, he is doubtful that its success can ever be repeated, partly
because he believes rock stars no longer have the following or influence
that they had in the early 1980s.
"I performed at the Live 8 concert in Edinburgh four years ago and the
attitude was very different. People came for a concert, not for a cause."
"In 1984 there was something real and honest and genuine about what
happened. People in Britain didn't want to see people in Africa starving to
death. They wanted to help - and thanks to them there are thousands of
people in Ethiopian villages who are alive today."
* Save the Children has launched an appeal to raise £20 million to feed
hungry people affected by drought in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya. To
donate, go to <http://www.savethechildren.org.uk/en/9245.htm>
www.savethechildren.org.uk or call 0207 0126400.
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