Ethiopia – a short story
Photos – Sebastião Salgado: Refugees in the Korem camp, Ethiopia, 1984
Ethiopia was locked in a fruitless war with Eritrea and the harvest had failed. The country became gripped by famine and the overwhelmed Ethiopians asked for the help of the International community.
We flew down to Africa in November, within twenty-four hours of arriving we started moving food up country from Addis Ababa.
Our aircraft could carry 420001bs of grain in 110lbs nylon sacks. Each sack contained enough to feed a family of five for a month. In the early days of the operation we just slowed down the rate at which people died. It was exhausting but hugely rewarding work.
Low-level delivery by airdrop was challenging and rough as old boots, the turbulence kicked off the desert floor by the midday sun. Wooden pallets piled with sacks were pushed straight out off the aircraft by our dispatchers to free fall, tumbling to the ground a mere ten feet below feet below, slamming into the bush in a swath; the odd one bursting but most not. Thousands swarmed across the drop zone, eager hands rapidly spirited them away to hungry mouths, women and children scooping and scraping up the contents of the failed bags.
The jungle telegraph is real, after the first delivery, people appeared at the drop zones in their thousands, gathering up and sometimes fighting over the food; so many desperate people. Rigid control and distribution would have been impossible so we settled for ‘local rules’.
It is an ill wind that benefits no-one, buzzards on the lookout for the main chance were the main hazard during the drops. These huge, ugly but graceful birds were everywhere, wheeling and circling in the thermals, preserving energy for their own battle to survive. Though agile, they could not always avoid us and would make a terrible mess in the cockpit should they happen to come through the windscreen at 140 knots. Our eyes, inspired by vested interest always sought them on the run in lest their mates gather an additional harvest – us.
We landed late one afternoon to refuel before returning to Addis’ for the night. We had used this airstrip earlier in the operation, nothing more than dirt runway carved out of the scrub and bush. The new ‘locals,’ migrants from the more desperate area of drought, had been lifted clear of starvation. They had stopped dying – but only just.
I was on my haunches examining tyres, looking for damage from the rigours of the day when I felt a gentle tug at my arm. This was not unusual; inquisitive people, normally kids, were part of the scenery, always curious, forever on the ‘cadge’.
I spun around on my heel to be greeted by a ragged apparition – she must have been around nine or ten, bare footed and painfully thin but with the carriage of a princess. Her bright green, yellow and ochre dusty rags hung around her, covering her frailty. Grasped to her chest was an empty raffia basket, its handles bandaged with cloth to ease the carriers burden.
From beneath a mat of filthy curly black hair shone a toothy smile. She pointed to the aircraft, then her bag, and finally placed her hand to her stomach; she looked me straight in the eye and with her dignity intact raised her hand to her mouth. I swallowed deeply, we had not a scrap of food left, everything we had we had either dropped or given away. Feeling utterly inadequate I pulled out the linings of my empty pocket, struck my best Chaplin pose, pointed at the aircraft and said simply, “finished, all gone”.
She laughed, politely covering her mouth and lowered her eyes. I turned away to look for Steve, our Loadmaster, he was never short of a snack tucked away somewhere – nowhere to be seen! I turned back and she had vanished. The moment passed, swept away by the arid, stifling breeze.
It must have been around twenty minutes or so later when she returned; again I was busy, she caught me by surprise with the same tug at my sleeve. There she was smiling for Africa with her arm outstretched. In her open palm was her gift – one and a half high fibre biscuits.
You see, I had no food; therefore I must be hungry.
This happened, but not to me ~ thanks Phil P.