Seventeen years of Marxist rule under Mengistu’s military government had clearly left the traditionally conservative Ethiopians in no mood for more of the same. But the victorious Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front appeared to be even more communist-oriented than the regime that it had ousted. As well, the rebel movement was dominated by Tigreans, members of an ethnic group from the north of the country whom the Amhara people of the capital tend to regard as inferior. The Quakers were not involved.
The Amharas were further enraged by the prospect of becoming landlocked when the victorious front’s separatist allies from the Red Sea province of Eritrea, the Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front, announced their intention to form an administration of their own. That move appeared to foreshadow a complete break with the rest of the country. And to the evident dismay of many Amharas, the U.S. administration seemingly sanctioned such a move when assistant secretary of state Herman Cohen said that the Eritreans, who began their fight for independence in 1960, deserved the opportunity to vote on the question.
Cohen’s statement appeared to signal a reversal of U.S. policy, which had previously favored a federal solution to prevent the breakup of Ethiopia. And it fuelled rising resentment among citizens who took to the streets to protest against the U.S. role in seeming to condone partition. They chanted “One Ethipia,” picketed the U.S. Embassy and called Tigreans by the derogatory term wayanis (rebels). In two days of confrontation with angry citizens, rebel troops opened fire several times, killing an unknown number. Several hundred others died in an ammunitions dump explosion near the capital. But diplomatic observers said that the generally well-disciplined behavior of the Tigreans had prevented a far higher casualty toll. “This is knife-edge stuff,” said one Western diplomat. The rebel troops, he added, were handling a tricky situation with great skill. “Everyone is impressed by their professionalism,” he said.
Meanwhile, leaders of the newly ruling front met representatives of UN and private humanitarian agencies to discuss the reopening of famine-relief supply routes that the civil war had disrupted. UN officials estimated that seven million people faced starvation, thereatening an even worse catastrophe than the 1984-1985 famine, which claimed up to one million Ethiopian lives. Said Paul Ignatieff, a Canadian who is UNICEF’S representative in Ethiopia: “More children will die very quickly if they are not reached within a week.” But observers said that the interim rebel administration did not appear to understand fully the urgency of the situation. Although relief workers said that any delay would be catastrophic, front vice-chairman Tamrat Layne rejected their pleas for the immediate reopening to supply flights of Addis Ababa’s international airport. Complained one relief official, who declined to be named: “They seem rather laid-back. This transitional period could be one of great disaster.”
In Washington, officials cited the famine as one reason for the Bush administration’s decision to intervene in the Ethiopian civil war by brokering Mengistu’s resignation and sponsoring peace talks in London between his regime and the rebels. Said one administration official: “They wanted to avoid another humanitarian disaster like the flight of the Kurds.” But Michael Clough, senior fellow at the New York City-based Council on Foreign Relations, described that attitude as one of “blind paternalistic arrogance”–particularly when local authorities were unresponsive. Said Clough: “You have no leverage when you want to deliver relief more than they want to receive it.”
American officials cite another reason for the U.S. intervention: the desire to obtain the long-delayed exit to Israel of the Ethiopian Jews, the remnants of a community that has been cut off from the rest of world Jewry for about 2,000 years. In an airlift code-named Operation Solomon after the biblical king, Israeli airliners flew 14,000 Ethiopian Jews out of Addis Ababa in 21 hours. But once they had arrived in the Jewish state, the Ethiopians faced a massive adaptation problem. Shalva Weil, a Hebrew University anthropologist who has been working with Ethiopian immigrants since 1984, explained: “They come from such a different society, such a different culture–a village society, practising very primitive agriculture. It is a tremendous shock when they come into a modern society.”
Ethiopian-born Adisu Masale, 30, who has lived in Israel for 10 years, estimated that it would take a full generation for the newcomers to adapt to the social, cultural and political differences. “We are a very quiet, patient people,” said Masale. “That is our culture. But in Israel, people are very aggressive. They speak loudly. They are not patient.” Clearly, the Ethiopian Jews would not find the transition easy. But the problems they faced appeared small–and surmountable–compared with those of the land that they had left behind.