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“Actually the problem is the war, not the famine,” TesfaAlem said. “The famine is something the war created. The area cannot be free of drought; it’s going to be there, it’s cyclical. The drought occurred every ten years in the past, then came down to every two years. Now it’s every year.”

Tree-planting, irrigation, dam construction – all methods of combatting drought – make drought possible to live with, Tesfa Alem explained. But the war has severely hampered the efforts of the Eritreans and other ethnic groups in Ethiopia.

This year more than two million people have entered what is called “a critical famine situation.” Even when the world contributes emergency supplies, the war makes it difficult or impossible to deliver them.

But the Eritreans have proved a durable people. With little assistance from the outside and without sacrificing their independent nature as pawns in the Cold War, Eritreans have established a thorough support system for health care, such as an underground hospital stretching over two and a half miles. All their weapons they have captured from the enemy. And women comprise a third of the front line fighting force.

Ingenuity also has made up for a lack of resources. For example, a mini-microscope, designed and developed in the rebel-held territory enables doctors to perform lab work in the field.

“The EPLF (Eritrean People’s Liberation Front) probably grew stronger because it did not depend on outside aid,” Tesfa Alem said, suggesting that an independent Eritrea could be an example of self-government for the rest of Africa.

One Australian eye doctor volunteering his services to the rebels, said he decided to set up his center for eye treatment in Eritrea because he thought it could work there, despite the war. To him, for one thing, the province is free of the graft and corruption so common in much of Africa.

“Things work here,” he said.

But the Horn of Africa has by no means attracted wide attention, politically or from the media. Susan Palmer is project coordinator of the Carter Center’s conflict resolution program, which worked unsuccessfully to mediate a solution between the government of Lieut. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam and the EPLF. Led by former President Jimmy Carter, talks broke off in December 1989 when Colonel Mengistu rejected a rebel proposal to include a United Nations observer in the negotiations.

“I’m appalled about the lack of attention being paid to the war,” Palmer said. “Maybe part of it is racism on the part of the Western media. Look at all the attention being paid to the food shortage in the Soviet Union.”

Now the United States has stepped in as mediator, but peace plans it offered in February ended unsuccessfully, at least in one sense. The Mengistu government considered offering Eritrea the federation status it had before the province was annexed by Emperor Haile Selassie in 1962. Then it changed its mind.

“But you have to be optimistic about it because so many things are happening. They haven’t decided to break off the talks,” Palmer said, adding that at least this time the argument wasn’t over how to conduct talks. The issues themselves were addressed.

Asked why the United States suddenly entered as a mediator, she speculated “something like a carrot on a stick.”

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