Senator Ted Kennedy after visiting Ethiopia in 1985 - Video
In 1984 Ethiopia was in the middle of multiple civil wars, which together with a failure of the rains caused one of the most severe famines in recent memory, one in which over a million people are believed to have perished.
In December, 1985 Ted Kennedy was one of the first U. S. officials to visit Ethiopia during the famine. Along with Jerry Tinker (see more about Jerry below) of his Senate staff, with him were his daughter Kara and son Teddy, traveling to what was decidedly not a vacation spot.
Directly as a result of the Senator's efforts and the publicity surrounding them, President Reagan asked for a $400 million increase in aid for Africa for 1985. A later Senate report said that as a result "seven million people have been spared starvation by a remarkable success story of international relief."Thanks to the youtube user
In Famine-Ravaged Ethiopia and Sudan, a U.S. Senator and His Family Find Suffering and Despair, Dignity and Courage
Ethiopia was once a proud and fertile land of coffee and grain fields. Today it is an unrelenting desert. Even for Africa, long stricken by droughts, the famine now gripping 12 of the 14 Ethiopian provinces and threatening Sudan is a tragedy of fearsome proportions. More than 12 million people in an area the size of California and Texas combined are suffering, and one million are believed to have perished. Man and nature share the blame for the crisis. Overgrazing, deforestation and poor agricultural practices have combined with a lack of sufficient rainfall for three years to parch the land; meanwhile, the civil war between Marxist government troops and rebels in the northern provinces of Tigre and Eritrea has cut off four million of Ethiopia's 40 million people from relief efforts. More than half a million refugees from these two provinces crossed into Sudan in 1984.
In an effort to halt the devastation, 50 feeding centers staffed by government workers, private charities and international organizations have been set up in hard-hit areas; 20 large relief camps are also in operation. In the last four months the U.S. has shipped 250,000 tons of food, worth $115 million, to Ethiopia. But this aid and an equal amount from other nations is inadequate. An additional 500,000 tons of food are still needed. Thousands more famine victims may die in the region this year if the relief efforts are not successful.
Last month Senator Kennedy, who as a 20-year member of the Senate Refugee Subcommittee has a longstanding commitment to such problems, conducted a fact-finding mission in Ethiopia and Sudan. He was accompanied by daughter Kara, a 24-year-old New York television news researcher; son Teddy, a 23-year-old Wesley an graduate; Jerry Tinker, counsel of the Refugee Subcommittee; John Wise of the Krause Milling Company in Milwaukee and Jay Kingham of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association of America.
After spending over a week observing the devastation and working alongside officials in the relief camps and in their cold-water lodgings, Senator Kennedy, at PEOPLE'S request, wrote his observations of the African tragedy.
Dec. 19—Arrival in Mekele
It seemed like forever getting here. Kara wondered, "Will it be as bad as the pictures?" Teddy agonized over who is to blame for the famine: "Is it human error? An accident of nature? An act of God?"
Memories of a decade ago came flooding back—the millions of refugees I saw in India and Bangladesh stricken by massive starvation and disease; children with swollen bellies; dying mothers nursing dying children. Could Ethiopia really be worse? Already it is one of the most battered nations of this century—ravaged by fascism in the 1930s and a previous famine in the 1970s. I remembered putting coins in the collection plate for Haile Selassie when I was a child.
Are we grandstanding by coming here? We don't think so. We wanted to come to gather as much information from the field as we could, to see whether the efforts of governments, private industry and individual citizens were making a difference. We also wanted to spend Christmas in the camps, to work with the private relief agencies and bear witness to one of the worst human tragedies of our lifetime. The real heroes are the workers from the Red Cross, Catholic Relief Services, CARE, OXFAM and other official and private groups. Perhaps something Teddy, Kara and I can do will avert even greater tragedy—or at least help to see that America is doing enough.
Arriving at the outskirts of Mekele [population: 70,000] in late afternoon, our car stopped on a hill near one of the largest relief camps in northern Ethiopia. Below lay a scene that none of us will ever forget—tens of thousands of people, most with no shelter at all, huddled in a camp that stretched for miles. "It's going to be worse than the pictures," Kara said, her words almost inaudible. Surprisingly, there was a chill in the air, yet most of the people were clothed only in rags. As we entered the camp, a boy began to follow Teddy, without responding to questions through our interpreter, as if he could not speak. Teddy tried to hug him to keep him warm; he was shivering, and Teddy had his shirt half off to give the boy when a Red Cross worker said gently, "No, no, no. You can't do that. There are too many. That's not the way."
Later the boy broke his silence and told us that his mother had died; he had been sleeping outside, because there wasn't room for him in a tent. The Red Cross worker said he couldn't even get the child a blanket. "If I did," he said, "turn around and look." A hundred other gaunt children were following us. We've never felt so helpless. "How can they stand it?" Teddy asked. "How many of them will die tonight?"
At the single water station serving 20,000 people in this part of the camp, the pipes were turned on for brief periods each day, and after the water was turned off, children sucked on the pipes. An official turned the valve on for us to prove that water was available, and a small pool quickly formed under the pipes. One of the children fell in, and they laughed and splashed each other—defying the seemingly inevitable outcome of their lives.
The children in the camps are getting less food than we were told, less than what is needed to keep them alive. Their parents knew the truth: They have been told by relief workers that their children are not getting enough food to survive, that they will die because there was not enough food in the camp.
Teddy was surrounded by a sea of children. They all wanted to shake his hand. A shipment of brightly colored children's clothes had come in from Italy—delicately decorated pants and blouses—and they were being distributed to a group of youngsters. One child put on a beautiful veil with flowers woven through it. You couldn't see anything nicer in the Easter Parade. And the child had nothing else on. The absurdity was deeply touching. People wanted to help—if only their good intentions could be channeled in practical ways that could make a difference.
We were told that 32 people had died in the area last night, that 10,000 will die this year in this camp alone and that the life expectancy in the camp is two years.
A UNICEF worker gave us a priority list of 35 to 40 drugs that are urgently needed, especially a vaccine against measles. But food was the worst problem, he said. They had not received a shipment in Mekele for two weeks. We had been told that there was enough food through February, and that 100,000 tons of wheat and other grains were coming in. But it clearly is not enough, and very little, if any, can be getting to the remote camps farther north, because the food comes here first and then moves out to the other distribution points.
At sunset, as we prepared to leave, the temperature began to drop into the 40s. Families in groups of five or six were huddled over fires they had made in shallow ravines or small rock piles for protection against the wind. The groups extended far up the hillside and their tiny fires seemed like thousands of matches in the night. Our saddest feeling was that we could leave the camp, but they could not.
After this first day in the field, our dominant impression of the people was their incredible dignity and pride amid this terrible adversity—their piercing, flashing eyes and quick smiles; so friendly and warm, never begging.
At a working session this evening with government officials and relief workers at a small hotel in Mekele, it was obvious that our hosts were reluctant to be candid, as if somehow they were at fault for the meager resources at hand. I told them that after we left, they would wish they had revealed what was in their hearts. I said, "I'm not here to find fault, but to help. America cares, and sometimes we can make a difference—but we have to know what you need the most." But no one volunteered. The failure of communication was frustrating. Perhaps we should have held private meetings with these officials, not group sessions.
We heard more reports and statistics from government officials, Red Cross and UN workers, and Japanese and Italian medical teams. But we could not stop thinking of the hillside and the helpless children huddled against the night cold without food, shelter or chance of survival.
I asked Sister Mary of Catholic Relief Services how she could face each day. She replied, "When the children come in, their eyes are empty and they act like zombies. After we feed them a little and care for them, a light clicks on—and the brightness in their eyes gives all of us the strength to carry on."
As we sat down to eat our meal of chicken, lentils and tef, the traditional Ethiopian bread, Teddy tried to say grace. He began, "I've never been so thankful for food. I've never been so thankful for anything in my whole life. I'm so glad my family is here." And he stopped in tears. It was how we all felt.
We were up at sunrise to return to the camps. In the morning chill, people were moving stiffly, obviously suffering from the cold. We saw a stretcher covered by a red-and-white cloth being carried from a small lean-to. A child had not survived the night.
The gravediggers were already at work beside the camp, and the stretchers were lined up. An official at the clinic said there had been more deaths than expected last night because of the cold. Children were buried in double graves dug deep and covered by large stones to prevent hyenas from digging up the remains. We had heard the hyenas barking last night.
Fearing the worst, I looked into a small tent where a father and mother had been treating a sick and emaciated child the day before. Today the boy was sitting up and smiling. We were all cheered by his tiny victory and we prayed it would last.
In mid-morning I flew by helicopter to a more distant feeding center at the village of Maych'ew, while Teddy and Kara stayed to work in Mekele. At Maych'ew, in a large tent, 600 to 800 children were receiving their daily ration of a cup of milk and a fortified biscuit. The smallest were in front; some were so weak they had to be held up by brothers or sisters. Mothers with infants, already served, were seated in the back, waiting to receive a supplemental ration. It was quiet except for the sound of children coughing, continually coughing, everywhere, and the sound of coughing became a haunting memory of the trip.
The camp director said that as many as 800 people spent the night in nearby Quonset huts, and that the strongest often slept outside to make room for the weakest. In the open area adjacent to the huts, hundreds of empty grain sacks were stretched on top of wooden sticks, flimsy protection against the weather. With incredible patience, people huddled in groups and waited their turn to receive food and water.
The stench in the feeding tent was overwhelming, and we could feel and see disease everywhere. Flies crawled over children's eyes, gathering moisture; clouded eyes signaled the presence of serious illness. We were struck by how many children had crossed eyes—and always the coughing. Yet mothers were painstakingly braiding their children's hair, as if they were about to leave for a birthday party.
When I returned to Mekele, Teddy was discouraged after his day at the Red Cross feeding station. "I just wanted to help in whatever way I could—to be another pair of hands," he said. "They put an apron on me and put me to work. But the children wouldn't eat—they just ignored their bowls. So I rubbed my stomach and kept saying, 'Yum, Yum, Yum!' They laughed, but they still wouldn't eat, and it made me so incredibly sad. When I tried to feed them myself, they pulled back their hands and turned their heads away. Sometimes the mothers had to hold their children down, force their mouths open and hold their noses to make them swallow. These children had been breast-fed until now and didn't know how to eat. The food itself was so strange—porridge, with a cup of milk to wash it down. Sometimes I would spend 20 minutes feeding a child with a teaspoon only to have him throw up all over me. Mothers are denied food if they lose their identification cards. The policy seemed cruel, but otherwise everyone would lose their cards in order to get more rations."
Teddy also visited the hospital in the center of Mekele, where the sickest children were taken, usually to die. He had been to cancer wards in the United States and talked with children who were dying—for whom nothing could be done. "But this is different," he said. "It's all so preventable, so senseless. To come from the United States and to see so many children dying of starvation, it makes me feel angry and helpless. It's so unfair and so wrong."
Kara spent the day at a special nutrition center in the camp for mothers whose children were gaining weight and who were eligible for extra rations. If the child did not gain weight, the ration was cut off. "It seemed so heartless to me," she said. "Yet there was no other way to be sure the ration was actually given to the child."
Those with severe diseases also received special care. Kara helped the nurses and described the scene: "My job was to weigh and measure the children, and help give their shots. I saw so many horrible things—the small black spots of typhoid on a child's stomach; gangrene in one girl's mouth so bad that she had no lip; lots of measles and tuberculosis. All the children had lice when they arrived. The nurses took their clothes, gave them new ones and fumigated the old ones. I could see the bites from the lice on the children's backs. One child came to the center every day, even though his mother had died. He knew he could get food here three times a day. The children are seated in row after row. Not until today did anyone notice the boy was alone. I wanted to put my arms around him and take him to a better place with food and shelter and clothing. But I couldn't, and there were so many, many others. How can I go home?"
Pondering the enormity of the crisis, we had to fight a growing sense of despair. Kara wondered whether even this inadequate relief effort could be sustained. "If we have enough funding for weapons," she said, "why can't we have enough to save the lives of children?" I answered that their future need not be hopeless—India had endured horrendous famine in the 1960s and now feeds itself as a result of Western aid and agricultural reforms.
Up at 7 a.m. for a two-hour drive to the camp at Bati. Statistics chalked on a large blackboard in the administrative tent gave us the grim figures: The population of the camp was now 22,000, 54 had died yesterday and there were 34 full-time gravediggers. Working was the only way to overcome our feelings of sadness, anger and depression, and at Bati we did not have to look far for something to do. Before I knew it, I had a bowl in my hands with warm mush—"CSM" they called it, corn-soy meal mixed with water. I was feeding a set of twins with a teaspoon, while their mother held their mouths open. How can this happen to children? I wished I could will life back into them.
Next, I carried a bucket of milk down long lines of children. Some refused to drink at all, and I tried making noises to encourage them to imitate me. "Wheee," I said as I dipped my ladle into the bucket, and "wheee" again as I poured it into their small cups. And a chorus of "wheee" started. As I moved down the line, I said "thank you"—and so did they. For the next two hours little groups were saying "wheee" and "thank you" before I even reached them with the bucket.
At noon Kara and I went over to the tent where doctors were immunizing children for measles. Teddy was fitting disposable needles to the syringes, but the most recent shipments of needles were the wrong size for the syringes. It was one of the bureaucratic blunders that made these days so frustrating. The doctors had to save the used needles, boil them and reuse them as long as they could still puncture the skin. Most of the children were so emaciated that the doctors inserted the needle sideways, to prevent it from coming out the other side. Teddy said, "It helps a lot to feel useful." Only three doctors were inoculating children, with hundreds waiting outside, and Teddy's help was needed.
When the doctors searched the camp for sick children, the mothers gave them the healthiest ones and hid the others, because they wanted to be sure that at least the healthy child survived. Many of the children had walked for days and were malnourished to the point of no return—the doctors said they could not possibly live. And yet the women can still give birth. One nurse told us that she had never seen people suffer from such severe malnutrition and still deliver children. Those who reached the maternity ward were the fortunate ones; most infants were born in the tents or outside the camp along the road in the cold with a slim chance of survival.
I asked a mother why she did not take her child to the feeding station. An official had told her she needed to fill out a form, but the form she clutched was printed in English. It said, "Please let this child in." With tears streaming down her face, she said she had been showing the form for a week at the station, but the Ethiopian relief workers could not read English.
Teddy made friends with children in each camp. Today, as we said goodbye and started for the airport for our flight to Dire Dawa, a boy ran down the road barefoot after us for 200 yards, and we stopped. His father had died three days before, and his mother and sisters were still in the hills. He had come to the camp alone, and now we were leaving him. It was one of the saddest moments of the trip.
This morning Teddy had a severely upset stomach, but he insisted on coming with us. On the hour flight to Jijiga, a Canadian development expert told us that the food and weather trends spelled serious long-term trouble for this region and its four million people.
We stopped at a feeding station and clinic run by Sister Bertilla of Mother Teresa's order. She fed 2,000 people a day from nearby villages, most of whom walked two to three hours to reach the station. She had 100 patients in her clinic, and the men, women and children were placed in wards, divided by disease.
It was the best run center we had seen. The relief workers mixed the food themselves and distributed it at 10 in the morning and 3 in the afternoon. "We can feed everyone," Sister Bertilla told us, "because the Lord will provide the supplies—and if He doesn't, Mother Teresa will, because President Reagan has told her so in writing." Kara worked with Sister Bertilla for an hour, passing out a mixture of sorghum, rice, sugar and soybean oil stirred into chicken or beef broth.
An elderly woman in the feeding area told us she was over 90. Her clothes were clean, her head was shaved, and she had a twinkle in her eye. She had nine children, but all of them had died in the famine, and now she was alone. She rattled her empty pot gently with her long walking stick and asked Sister Bertilla to "fill it up nicely, please." The politeness of her comment captured the extraordinary sense of dignity and courtesy in so many of the survivors.
Sister Bertilla told us that many things could grow here if they had the opportunity. She had started a garden to teach the people to plant more nutritious food. Pointing to a ripe papaya tree, she said that the people often tried to shake the fruit because they thought it was a coconut. Papaya is rich in vitamin A, and her achievement obviously brought her great satisfaction.
Sister Bertilla accompanied us on the plane back to Addis Ababa. I told her how much my younger son, Patrick, had wanted to make this trip, but the doctors had advised against it because of his asthma. As we left the plane, Sister Bertilla pressed a small statue of the Virgin Mary into my hand and said she wanted Patrick to have it.
Dec. 23—Khartoum and Kassala
A morning flight brought us down from the high plateaus of Ethiopia to the river plains of Sudan and the ancient city of Khartoum (pop. one million), where the Blue Nile and the White Nile meet to begin their 2,000-mile journey north to the Mediterranean. The air was dry and dusty, and the two great rivers seemed out of place, isolated by the sand.
At a meeting with President Gaafar Nimeiri of Sudan, I praised his generosity for accepting hundreds of thousands of refugees from the famine, when millions of his own people now were also threatened by the drought. He told us in fluent English that 1,500 people a day were crossing the eastern border into Sudan from Eritrea and Tigre. Supplies were adequate for now, he said, but no food was pledged after February. "The Russians support the developing world by giving guns," he said, "and the Americans give food. That's the difference between the Soviet Union and the United States."
Later, flying east to the town of Kassala, which would be our base for the next two days, we passed over miles of barren, red earth, scorched by the sun. Almost nowhere in the two-hour flight did we see land where crops could grow, and we wondered how the refugees from Ethiopia could survive in this terrain. But Kassala is an oasis created by nearby streams and irrigation canals; 100,000 Sudanese live in clusters of painted brick or mud houses, and spectacular colors of pink, green and yellow suddenly broke the monotonous brown landscape.
From the airport, we left by Land-Rover for Tekl el Bab across the flat sandy plain. The Sudanese drivers, cautious in town, accelerated as we reached the desert, leaving a thick dust cloud in our wake. Our driver said be grateful we were in the first car.
At dusk, an hour outside the city, we came to the camp at Tekl el Bab, at the foot of a steep rocky hill. At first there was no sign of a camp, no sense of a large refugee population. But as we approached we saw that vast numbers of families were huddled under thorny scrub brush—the only vegetation—with tattered cloth or dried branches as their shelter. The groups stretched over a mile, and thousands more were up on the hillside, seeking warmth among the rocks heated by the sun. A handful of makeshift tents was barely sufficient to serve as clinics and feeding stations.
Tekl el Bab was home for 36,000 refugees who had crossed the border from Ethiopia. Three months ago there had been nothing here, only the desert. But as many as 2,000 refugees a day had been arriving since October—without shelter or water at the site, without latrines or sanitary facilities. Grain had run out days ago, and in desperation relief workers were bringing small food supplies from other camps.
Disorganization and chaos were obvious, and we worried that no one seemed in charge or knew what was going on. The difference from the more organized camps in Ethiopia was striking, and the disparity in food and care was painful. Had the refugees trekked so far for so little? Was anyone to blame, or was the human tragedy overwhelming the meager resources available to avert it? On top of all the suffering, why did there have to be so much organizational chaos?
One official from Kassala told us that the food had been adequate at first, but with the arrival of thousands of new refugees, the stocks had run out. He was pressing his superiors in Khartoum and he thought more food was coming. When, he did not know.
Departing after dark, we witnessed another extraordinary scene. The refugees on the hillside had begun to make fires to keep warm, and the hill was glowing with tiny sparks that looked from a distance like thousands of sparkling Christmas lights. But instead of radiating the joy of Christmas, the lights reflected the barren hardships of the people's lives. Kara turned away in despair.
Later that evening, in Kassala, we learned that a 500-ton shipment of grain had been sitting for three weeks at Port Sudan on the Red Sea—four hours away by truck, caught in a bureaucratic battle over whether it should be warehoused in Khartoum or diverted to Kassala. I have never seen a more graphic demonstration of the truth that red tape kills.
Christmas Eve—Wad Sharifie
Another early departure, again by Land-Rover, for the camp at Wad Sharifie. Originally it had been designed as a temporary transit center, not a camp. In the past six months it had grown to its present size of nearly 40,000, with waves of new refugees settling in concentric circles around those who had come before. At the medical center the doctors told us that the primary cause of death—22 to 24 persons a day—is respiratory infection, followed by measles and malaria. We thought of our malaria pills and the inoculations we had received against yellow fever, cholera and typhoid, and we hoped they would be effective.
At a supplementary feeding station only 40 to 50 children were receiving milk and biscuits, even though we could see that hundreds more were in need. Diane Mackie, a Red Cross nurse from Canada, told us candidly that the camp was deteriorating because of inadequate food, water, shelter and medical supplies. There was no central place where new refugees were received. Some had been in the camp for days and still had not been given food or medical care or even identification cards, although the Sudanese administrator had told us that teams went out each day to register new arrivals. Of four water wells at the camp, only one was usable. Mackie spoke nervously, looking over our shoulders, realizing that the local officials were listening. But her commitment to the refugees was so strong that she was willing to risk whatever wrath came to her. If there are profiles in courage today, they are people like Diane Mackie and the other relief workers who are saving lives against the odds in forgotten places like this.
Throughout the area were homemade shelters made of grain bags or mats stretched across the top of four sticks in the sand, creating a square yard of shade—enough for two or three children and their mother to escape the hot sun. Some of the children we saw seemed too weak to go to the feeding station, and we learned that the mothers carried them. One woman told me she had heard that America was sending tents, and she was grateful—but what she really needed was food. "Most of all," she said, "your presence and your touch mean more than whatever food God gives me or whatever God inspires you to do." That woman, and hundreds of others we met, knew that Americans cared, and it gave them hope. I felt proud that millions in the United States were involved and trying to help. I wished I could tell them all, "Keep it up. It makes a difference."
We drove to the outer circle of the camp to see the newest arrivals. At random, I looked into a small stick hut whose roof was a tattered mat and saw an infant lying beside an obviously dying woman. The relief worker with us was embarrassed and immediately arranged for the mother and baby to be rushed to the hospital. I have thought about them often since. Why hadn't they been found before? They were alive when we left the camp. I don't know if they survived.
Many people have reached this camp in fair condition because of the feeding stations along the way, although several families told us of relatives left behind because they were too frail or sick. In Sudan the organization of the camps was worse, but here in Wad Sharifie the plight of the people is not yet as desperate as in Tekl el Bab or in Ethiopia. Still, infant mortality was increasing here—which is ominous, since the rate in most camps in Ethiopia was going down. We had the feeling that much worse is yet to come.
Teddy learned that two volunteers from the Swiss Red Cross had opened a small shop in Kassala to make crutches and even artificial limbs for handicapped refugees. Teddy stopped at their shop and showed them his own artificial leg. Later he told us: "I asked whether they needed any supplies from America—whether I could be of any help. But I was surprised to learn that everything they used came from Sudan. They had to be self-sufficient and make and repair their devices with the money they had. Otherwise, the local people could not afford their devices and would revert to their old wooden crutches and stumps."
Returning to Kassala that evening, Christmas seemed very far away. But throughout the day we had seen an extraordinary spirit of giving and sharing, particularly by the workers of the relief agencies. We decided that our Christmas Eve should honor them and we invited all 15, representing seven different nationalities, to share the evening with us at our small government bungalow.
The Dutch team brought little plastic Christmas trees with bright decorations for the table, the French medical team sang a French carol, and the American Embassy officer brought a small turkey. I insisted that the persons who had labored in the field the longest should be served first, because they were the ones who had been doing the Lord's work on this night the Lord was born.
Christmas Day—El Obeid
Up early for 6:30 Christmas Mass, celebrated in a small brick church by an Ethiopian priest for his refugees. Then we headed off again by Land-Rover to the border to try to see the daily flow of refugees. As we reached the border, we scouted a number of areas, and caught up with a column of refugees moving toward Tekl el Bab. Last in the long line by 50 yards was a small boy, walking painfully with a long stick. He was almost too weak to talk, but we found out that he was an orphan and we took him the remaining distance to the camp in our car.
Ahead of us, stretching for a mile, were endless groups of refugees, almost entirely women and children in tattered clothes holding small plastic jars with a few ounces of water, carrying a few meager possessions of pots and mats. Teddy observed, "My age group doesn't exist—all I see are children, mothers and older people." The Sudanese driver said that anyone Teddy's age in Ethiopia who could walk was drafted into the army by the government or the rebels.
We walked a few hundred yards with the refugees in the hot sand, and we were already tired. How could they go for days in the 90° F. heat? The bleached animal carcasses by the road were probably the only reminder they needed of their fate if they stopped. I thought: "These are the death marches of the 1980s."
When we stopped beside another group, they squatted down, oblivious to the flies that quickly covered them—flies so thick on some children's faces that we could not see their eyes; flies in the mouths of the women; flies swarming on their clothes. They had been walking for a month, and they said they would go back to their homes in Ethiopia one day. A small boy collapsed, and we picked him up. His eyes were glazed, his face was puffed out and his bones were jutting through his frail frame. A sense of hope was the magnet that pulled them along the road toward the camp—but their hope must surely be dashed when they arrive and find that Tekl el Bab is out of food, water, medicine and clothes.
I thought of my own childhood, walking with my mother on the beach at Cape Cod. Sand and sun have always meant happy times for us, but here they were the enemy—destroying lives and killing mothers and their children. None of us will ever forget these families struggling across the desert.
Our pain and alarm were obvious, and our Sudanese hosts tried to put a brighter face on the suffering. They meant well and wanted to believe that things were good. They feared that if things were bad, it would reflect negatively on them. But things are bad, and they are only beginning to understand that we are here to help, not criticize.
We were silent on the ride back to Kassala, numbed by the scale of the tragedy we had seen. So many scenes have touched our souls in these past seven days. We thought of people waking up now on Christmas morning in other parts of the world, far from here. We remembered other Christmases in other places and our happy family gatherings. Kara, Teddy and I have missed Patrick many times on this trip, but at this moment we missed him most of all. I closed my eyes to capture an image of him as he is today—a healthy, active boy of 17. How blessed I have been with my children.
Long ago, on this day, the Prince of Peace was born, but there can never be real peace on earth as long as there is misery and hunger of the magnitude we have seen here. We asked God's blessing for these people who need it most of all, and we hoped our Christmas prayer would be heard.
From Kassala we flew back to Khartoum and on to the city of El Obeid in central Sudan. The dust traveled with us—but the despair did not. This region is also suffering from drought, but the situation is better. Local officials are a step ahead of the crisis and, with outside help, they are holding their own against the famine that has engulfed the areas to the east. The camp we visited outside the city was well organized; the people were Sudanese and they were in far better condition than the refugees we had seen from Ethiopia this morning. A special feeding program, scheduled for our arrival, demonstrated the effectiveness of the effort.
The governor of the camp took Teddy, Kara and me to a place where he had assembled 2,000 people, and they reacted warmly and spontaneously when we were introduced. They knew we were Americans and they knew America was helping them. I asked them to vote on what they needed most, and I listed water, shelter, clothing, medicine and food as the choices. When I came at last to food, they erupted with cheers. The message was clear. They were better off than most, but food, food and more food was still the gift of life, the gift they needed most on this Christmas Day.
Dec. 26—El Obeid to Khartoum
As our last day began, we traveled by Land-Rover across sand dunes to the village of Urn Sot outside El Obeid. It was a trip of 25 miles, but it lasted an hour and a half because of the difficult desert terrain. Um Sot is one of the villages targeted by the Sudanese government, the U.S. and CARE as part of a joint innovative program designed to feed local populations in their own areas and revive their agriculture before famine hits and forces them to flee to the cities to survive.
Roads are almost nonexistent in this region, and the logistical problems in the experimental effort are immense, especially in the villages farther out. But the alternative is worse—a future for Sudan that could repeat the present in Ethiopia.
At midday we returned by plane to Khartoum for our international flight to the U.S. It seemed impossible that I would land in Boston on the same day that I left Khartoum, and that Ethiopia and Sudan, with all their suffering, were only a plane ride away from the abundance of America.
I have visited two profoundly moving places in my life. At ground zero in Hiroshima in 1979 I resolved to do all I can to stop the nuclear arms race. Africa has been another ground zero—and I will never stop working to end hunger in the world.