Saturday, January 9, 2010

'Breakfast in Hell: A Doctor’s Experiences of the Ethiopian Famine'

This review originally appeared in the Washington Times on Monday, June 1, 1987, and in the New York City Tribune on Wednesday, June 3, 1987.

A Doctor’s Story Of Deliberate Famine And an African Hitler 

Breakfast in Hell: A Doctor’s Experiences of the Ethiopian Famine, by Myles Harris, Picador, London, $4.85, 221 pp. 

In the play Man of La Mancha, the poet Cervantes explains what impelled a plain country squire toward becoming the knight Don Quixote: “Being retired, he has much time for books. . . . All he reads oppresses him, fills him with indignation at man’s murderous ways toward man.”

This is one of those books. Breakfast in Hell came to my attention through an article by the author in The Spectator, the British public affairs weekly. The title was “The Regime That Kills Ethiopians,” and that sums up the whole story. It would be extraordinarily difficult to come away from Myles Harris’s account of the state-imposed famine in Ethiopia without profound anger and indignation.

Myles Harris is a medical doctor who has worked all over the world caring for the malnourished, ill-housed, poorly clothed and impoverished people who make up such a large number of us. Prior to his six months in Ethiopia with the Red Cross, he and his wife Janet had worked in undeveloped regions in Papua New Guinea, Australia and the Kalahari Desert.

It is clear from the outset that Harris went to Ethiopia with few, if any, preconceptions of what he would encounter there. The Red Cross needed medical personnel to work in famine areas, and he responded to their call. He had no trouble adopting the apolitical life of a Red Cross delegate and wanted only to help suffering Ethiopians.

He emerged from the country half a year later with bitter feelings toward the Mengistu regime, toward international aid agencies and toward petty Communist Party officials who blocked genuine humanitarian relief; he has fond and loving memories of his Ethiopian co-workers and the farmers, townspeople, young mothers and children he encountered in the feeding camps and medical stations.

Harris writes vividly and pulls no punches. He compares the Emperor Mengistu (as he calls Ethiopia’s Marxist military dictator) to Hitler and Stalin; indeed, reading some of the descriptions of Mengistu’s atrocities makes one think Adolph and Joe were mere pranksters.

For instance: The Soviets, as part of their aid to keep him on his throne, sent a unit of the East German Volkspolizei, “a secret police force with one of the finest pedigrees in suppression in the world. . . . At the time of the Ethiopian terror in 1977, some of the most senior Volkspolizei officers had once been serving members of the Gestapo. For, at the end of the Second World War, the capitulation of half the Third Reich to the Russians had meant little more for them than. . . swapping a swastika for a red star, before it was business as usual.”

The business these ex-Gestapo henchmen taught Mengistu was the need for a memorable terror to bring all Ethiopians into his iron grip. “Mengistu searched his heart for the most terrible thing he could do to bring his people through fear to the truth of Marxism-Leninism, and he thought of burial. Ethiopians hold burial to be one of the most important rites of life. To die unburied, to be forgotten in death, is so awful that even today those who whisper to you their memories of the Terror can hardly bring themselves to speak of this part of it…. [Mengistu] ordered that the bodies of the slain should lie unburied, and that those who tried to take them for burial were themselves to be slaughtered. One morning, the people of Addis woke to streets filled with corpses and a sky dark with vultures.” Later, “the lampposts were strung with corpses, not of men, but of young school boys who had tried and failed to rescue their fathers’ and brothers’ bodies for burial. . . . When it was over, of the 5,000 students at the University of Addis Ababa, only 1,500 were still alive.”

That excerpt exposes the minds of men who would, among other things, padlock food warehouses for days and weeks, refusing to give relief workers access to the tools of their trade; who would refuse hospital admission to obviously sick and dying children whose parents lacked the proper papers from the local farmers’ association, papers that took five days or longer to obtain; who would ship truckloads of grain from the famine-stricken north of the country to the healthier and more fertile south, where it was stored for unknown reasons -- perhaps for later shipment to the masters in Moscow. These are men who forbid the sale of yeast to Ethiopian citizens in order to secure a government monopoly on the baking and selling of bread.

Harris spares nearly no one from his understated but strongly felt wrath. The Red Cross and other relief agencies get criticism for trying too hard to work with and please the government -- a government that wants to keep the Red Cross from doing its job. At one point, he tries to explain this to his superiors:

“We had done exactly what we had been instructed to do by Geneva: emptied the camps of all except the very ill and returned the rest of the people to their villages.

“But each success would have found little favor with the Ethiopians. Suddenly, they had been washed into the center of a disaster worse than the First World War.

Confused and frightened, their only remedy -- huge feeding programs -- seemed the only rock to cling to. Then we came along and tried to close down their camps. Closing down their operation implied their failure, and, as in most aid programs, threatened bureaucratic livelihoods. Famine camps meant foreign aid, foreign aid meant jobs.”

Hitler, Stalin and Mao share one positive characteristic — they are all dead. But Mengistu and the communists who rule Ethiopia with him are alive and dripping with the blood of their countrymen. Why, then, do Western governments, the United Nations and Bob Geldof’s Band-Aid continue to send them money that perpetuates their tyranny?

Richard Sincere, a Washington writer, is currently pursuing post-graduate studies in international relations at the London School of Economics.

1 comment:

Blogger said...

Did you know that you can earn money by locking selected pages of your blog or site?
All you need to do is open an account with AdscendMedia and run their Content Locking tool.