Ethiopia Famine

Ethiopia_FamineThe 1984-85 Ethiopian famine, one of Africa’s biggest disasters in history, was characterized by the cruelest act of nature, war and catapulted by the sheer negligence and avaricious nature of the human race. At first, cattle suffered as they grew thinner, thirstier and hungrier before they eventually died as worthless bags of skeletons. Then the crops; no longer able to withstand the searing heat, withered.

Thereafter, the ground; once flourishing with fertility, started dusting off. Soon, Ethiopian food baskets ran dry. These were clear signs of drought which had gripped the Horn of Africa, yet little was being done to alleviate the effects of a catastrophe in the making. Ethiopia had been a Marxist state since the overthrow of diminutive Emperor Haile Selassie in September 1974. While the West feared it would bear the costs of drought aid, the military government of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam spent money buying weapons to battle against guerrillas fighting for freedom for the highland region and Eritrea. The same government had warned that 5 million people risked starvation due to poor harvests, but was doing nothing to reverse the effects.

On the other hand, Europe had recorded bumper harvests but lack of awareness in regards to the looming famine meant that little aid was being directed to the victims. Before long, Ethiopians were dying in hundreds everyday especially in the famine hotspots, Korem, Alamata and Makele. Still, little was being done as everybody seemed withdrawn from helping fight a disaster wiping out a population in millions. By October 1984, the death toll was estimated at 200,000, a number that western diplomats said could rise to 900,000 by the end of the year whatever the level of aid. The world was suddenly starting to realize the level of the disaster in the making. It took the forte and selfless mettle of a cameraman with his unswerving lens to catch the action and show it to the world. Mohammed Amin, the reputably known frontline cameraman extraordinaire shot excruciatingly wrenching images of hungry children almost reduced to skeleton bones which hit the world headlines and grasped the conscience of many around the globe. The images invaded the living room comfort of millions of people among them Bob Geldof and Midge Ure who eventually organized a Live Aid concert in 1985 to help remove the starving millions out of the horrendous situation.

Aid started coming, but still some people were succumbing. “Mo’s” coverage of the famine proved so compelling that it inspired a collective global conscience and became the catalyst for the greatest ever human-human act of giving. The concerts of Band Aid & Live Aid and songs “We are the World” and   “Do they know it is Christmas” were as a direct result of Mo’s moving images. Michael Jackson “MJ”, only 26 years of age then, and Lionel Richie wrote the song "We Are the World”, which became one of the fastest-selling singles ever. The song sold millions of copies and raised more than $50 million for not only Ethiopian famine victims but also other drought-hit countries across Africa. “It was the television pictures in the first place that moved the world, and moved the governments and that brought about the global interests which, in turn brought about the flow of aid. I felt it was our responsibility to keep the story in people’s minds. Something I had never done before,” Mo said. “Mohamed Amin mobilized the conscience of mankind. Many millions are alive today because he risked his life time and again,” said former US President George Bush. But even though Ethiopia was hauled off its greatest-ever nightmare of famine, drought is a recurrent problem in the country. However, the Ethiopian government has changed, so has the technical, logistical and managerial aspects of famine prevention and preparedness. Response to humanitarian crises has also witnessed immense progress and one can only hope that such a huge population would never have to die again because of hunger.

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