|Julia V. Taft, Assistant Secretary of State for|
Population, Refugees, and Migration
Press Conference, American Cultural Center
Asmara, Eritrea, August 1, 2000
Thank you all for coming out so early in the morning to meet with me. It has been a whirlwind tour of affected areas in Gash Barka. Through meetings with government officials I believed that I have gained a sense of the magnitude of the challenges that are facing Eritrea to reestablish the economy and to provide assistance to the people who have been affected by the drought and the war and to help them to reestablish their normal lives. However, my efforts focused on the refugee crisis -- I am the advisor to the Secretary of State on humanitarian issues for the State Department -- and all pieces related to demining, the drought, and humanitarian assistance bear close attention by me and my staff.
In the course of our visits to Barentu, to Tessenei, to Adi Kashi Internationally Displaced Person (IDP) camps, and to Guluj city we were able to see both the negative affects of the war, but also some very hopeful signs for progress. In terms of the negative effects there was obviously a lot of looting and malicious destruction of health facilities, schools, and administrative buildings. The cotton processing plant in Ali Gadir which was a hoped-for economic focus for the country in the west cannot operate for the time being due to the damage sustained. But what we saw that is quite remarkable and that is not unusual for Eritrea, which has this incredible capacity for coping, is that we saw large fields in the Guluj area that are being flowed and readied for cultivation. We understand that perhaps as much as 50% of the normal crop might still be possible this year if the people are able to come back to their villages and if the land is readied for planting. We also saw great destruction of water systems, but efforts were being made to try to reestablish the solar panels, the batteries, and the pumps; so there was some hope there too.
While we were outside of Tessenei we saw the returning refugees from Sudan. It was day 5 of the program and already 7,000 had entered Eritrea. We saw the arrival of another 2,500 -- this program was up and running. There were 100 trucks bringing people back and then they were being transported from the Tessenei reception center in a very organized process to be able to go out to their homes. Before I came out, I was originally concerned that the repatriation might be too early, thinking that perhaps it was better for these people to stay in Sudan until major recovery had taken place in Eritrea. Having seen it first hand I am now very supportive and very convinced that the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights' (UNHCR) decision and the Government of Eritrea's decision to encourage and assist these people in their early return is the right one.
However, there are a number of challenges that our team has been working on in close cooperation with the USAID Mission, the U.S. Embassy, NGOs and the United Nations. There are going to be problems in the distribution of food. This is not with the food coming from Massawa to Asmara. It is my understanding that there was a problem 2 months ago when all the food was at the port. It is out of the port now and it is here in Asmara. There are over 35,000 mt of food warehoused in Asmara. One of the challenges for the UN World Food Program (WFP) will be to get those commodities out into the rural areas and villages throughout the country. We also are committed to assisting and to combining our efforts with the U.S. demining people who are here training with the Eritreans on humanitarian demining. We are also looking at a number of additional initiatives that the U.S. can invest in to help the people of Eritrea. Already the U.S. has funded the drought-affected and IDPs to the tune of $50 million and, as the result of this visit, we expect to make additional input for the WFP program. Next month, additional U.S. food will be here and we are already the largest donor, as you know. This food will be coming in and that is why it is important to get the food out of Asmara and into the pipeline.
Finally, we are encouraged with the discussions that the government is having with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) both on this side as well as with the ICRC in Ethiopia in terms of access to Prisoners of War (POWs) and access to the occupied areas. We are thankful that soon there will be some progress. It is very important as a demonstration, not only during the cease-fire, and we need to make sure that the people who have been in the occupied areas as well as the POWs are treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention. We have put a lot of effort into discussing that with the ICRC as well as with the appropriate officers here. In fact, let me just say that, I have worked with and for Eritrea in the past when I was the Director of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance during the famine when there also was an impact this region. We depended a quite a lot on the Era to provide assistance to the Eritrea people and, after many years, almost 10 years, it is really incredible to come back and to see how Era has now been transformed and added to as Eritrea Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (ERREC). The same competencies and capabilities exist and we have confidence in ERREC; in their leadership in conjunction with the NGOs and the international organizations. We are hoping that we can build on the cease-fire time frame here to do as much as we possibly can to demonstrate with you and for you the advantages of peace. We hope that our focus on humanitarian issues will result in a very solid future for Eritrea. With those comments, let me see if you have any questions.
Q: (Meles, Kestedebena weekly) The WFP has stated that it has only 1 month supply of grain, but people are asking, why is there only 1 month supply now that Eritrea needs assistance when you have been supplying Ethiopia for many years? Does this not represent taking sides?
A: First of all, Ethiopia has 60 million people. The U.S. has provided humanitarian food support for Ethiopia when it has needed it and all of us remember the tragedies of 1984-85. However, in terms of assistance, what we try to do is meet the need. The U.S. is funding about 50% of the food aid to this entire region which is affected by the drought. AID and the Food for Peace program, have 112,000 mt of food that is just going to be distributed for Eritrea. When the WFP says that they have only 1 month supply, they have more than 1 month supply already in Asmara. We saw people returning to Gash Barka and they were receiving 2 months supply of food and others were also receiving food. Already there is another ship off-loading in Massawa. There will be more food coming from the U.S. next month. Questions that you always ask are: "is the pipeline working?" and "is it moving to where it is needed?" So right now you have this crunch now in Asmara, as soon as that opens up then more food can be called forward. We don't anticipate that there will be a serious shortfall of grain. There is not, however, the mixture of vegetables, corn-soy blend (CSB), and other things that we like to have. Please do not get into the bind of saying that we are exactly like Ethiopia, because you are not and your needs are not exactly like Ethiopia's. We believe in parity and in trying to be responsive to the needs. So the kinds of things that we are working on now in Eritrea are, in certain areas, not at all what we are doing in Ethiopia. For example, we have a USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) in Eritrea focusing only on IDPs, we don't have that in Ethiopia where we are focusing instead on the drought. Therefore, it is difficult to compare. I have taken this trip to ensure that the actual needs of the Eritrean people are responded to in a way which your government finds appropriate and which ensures that we all of us work together to help you. Your government does not want us to put too much food on the market in a way that your farmers are unable to sell their own food. I thank you for a very good question, one that it was very important to explain and I hope that I have done that.
Q: (Aaron, Setit weekly) Why will the Ethiopian Government not accept their own people who are seeking repatriation?
A: This is a big issue on both sides; there are Ethiopians here who wish to return as well as those who wish to stay and there are Eritreans there that need to be allowed to either stay or come back, if they want. This is one of the areas where we think the ICRC is very well placed to try to negotiate. They have helped some of the Ethiopians go back home. There are tens of thousands who may want to go back and the ICRC has been working on these negotiations for that. With regard to the POWs that are here, there are about the same number of POWS in both countries and we are encouraged and hopeful that the ICRC working with the Ethiopians and the Eritrean officials will see the parity of that and that they will be able to develop modalities and visit POWs which is also essential and to make arrangements and be able to say: "Eritrea now that you have yours back , Ethiopia you can have yours back ", and I think that this is something that I am pushing for very hard. I am always interested in ideas that come up about what we can do for people who do return to their homes, how to get them started again in life, but the most important thing is protecting them while they make that transfer. In this regard we rely on the international community and the ICRC to try to negotiate.
Q: ( Follow-up, Aaron Setit) But what can you do to pressure the Ethiopian Government to accept their people?
A: Are you speaking about the people who are now trying to get back through the Mereb area? As I understand it part of the problem is one of the modality of return and whether or not the river was safe to cross. Eritrea had a plan for the modality of the return which had them passing through an area which Ethiopia felt was unsafe because of the river. Having seen a river that was dry, the other day, near Tessenei and 2 hours later was a surging wall of water, I realize that it is a concern whether or not the river is the proper way to go. So we are pressing to see if they can come up with an alternative way to send them, but the Ethiopians should accept their citizens, you are right.
Q: (Deutschwelle Stringer) In the post-Cold War world, everyone throughout the world looks to the U.S. as the superpower. If there is an assessment, everyone wants to speak to the Americans. Here in the Horn of Africa people are suffering from drought, famine, border conflicts, and civil strife. Now, you are here assessing these humanitarian conditions; the problem for these refugees, peasants and IDPS, is food. So, when you return to the U.S., please know that, though you are doing a good job; try to send more assistance to these people.
A: I appreciate your humanitarian spirit and also your comments about the role of the United States. A lot of people expect us to solve all of these problems, but they can't be solved externally. They have to be solved by the people of the countries involved and that is very important. We can try to encourage peace and we can work with other regional authorities but the U.S. cannot resolve these problems alone. We can work on food, and we can support the general spirit of multi-lateral cooperation in the humanitarian field; but the U.S. can not and should not pay all funds to support the World Food Program, United Nations Childrens' Fund (UNICEF), and the UNHCR. What is unique about those vehicles and organizations is that they represent the conscience of many different counties and it is important to keep all of those committed and interested countries as donors. If the U.S. gives too much food or too much aid the impression is that we own that international humanitarian organization and that is not true and it is not good. So, we do not want to give more than about 50%. We are very encouraged when we see the EU coming in, or the Italians coming in, and others coming in to make major contributions. We are interested in having the countries that are affected more, there are a lot of countries out there who are committed to trying to help you on the humanitarian side. As much as my role out here is to find out what is happening and what the needs are, I also work very closely with the other donors, with the Europeans donors. I will be calling on them and telling them what I saw and urging them to do more. Maybe that is a leadership role that is appropriate, but I do not think that it is appropriate for us to carry the full burden. The other problem is that, with regard to regional cooperation, every country has been affected by the drought, but we are seeing that in some parts of the Horn the drought is not as severe as it was in the 80's. The rains have come, food has been pre-positioned, and it is okay. I just came from Kenya and they have a really very, very difficult problem. So, all of us need to say, not just that we are going to focus on Kenya or that we are only going to focus on Eritrea; but we want to do this regionally. That is why we have regional assessment missions such as mine; so that we can look at a balance of what makes sense for Kenya and what makes sense for you. If you have any concerns about whether or not we are making our fair share contribution, please contact the Information Officer to find out exactly what the U.S. has done and I think that you will see that we are trying very hard to be good partners with the people of Eritrea.
Q: (Meles, Kestedebena weekly) I myself am a writer and a deportee. I would like to stress that we must always keep the people first. These deportations only aggravate the situation. Please convey to the U.S. Government that they must put pressure on both governments to pursue peace. If we have peace, we can solve our own problems. Can the U.S. apply additional pressure?
A: This has been very much a theme of what I have been hearing and saying. We are trying to focus on what different avenues of cooperation we can use to pursue peace. I think that we are struggling with the number of different levels at which we can get people to pursue peace. While you have a cease-fire, it seems to me to be the best opportunity to get groups together. I recently met with the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church in Ethiopia who had returned from Oslo where there had been a meeting of religious leaders including the Muslims where they had discussed how they in Eritrea and Ethiopia ought to have exchange visits; how they need to find ways to communicate peace. So, there is a role for churches. There may be a role for the women of Eritrea to meet with groups of Ethiopian women. There are cultural exchanges that could happen, for example your Celebration here right now is a celebration of cultural diversity. However, we find ways to share the importance of diversity. There are in some areas national immunization days where everyone works on a cross-border basis. These are techniques to focus on the children and the people who matter the most. These are ways for communicating and for sharing experiences and this is also part of the healing process. We are looking at ideas about how to of how to bring groups people together. The officials talk or they don't talk in terms of their politics, but I am only dealing with the humanitarian issues. Any ideas that people have of how to sit down and talk. We all have the same concerns, but different perspectives. There was a suggestion that maybe the National Union which have a similar operation in both nations. Maybe we should have opportunities for them to meet and for them to talk. As you say, the problems are deep seated and it will take a long time, but we have to move forward. That is part of our ideas during this period of the cease-fire that it will be essential for everyone to understand that the benefits of peace are not only less expensive but better than war. Everyone needs to hear that message.
Q: (Eri-News) You have stated that there are a number of challenges with respect to the distribution of food, can you describe those challenges?
A: Well, the basic challenge is to make it happen. The food stored here in Asmara is not needed here, it is needed in a lot of other places. So the WFP has requested and has in country these huge tents that are organized to be used for food storage, but they have not yet been placed out, but they are working with ERREC on that. They need to get the food from Asmara to these regional distribution posts. Again the challenge is not that there are not enough long haul-trucks, there are a lot of trucks and drivers that have been identified, but these are 35 ton trucks. But having just seen the terrain of your gorgeous country, a lot of people are living in places that are very difficult to access places. So, we are asking that they look at having very much smaller trucks, like the type used in Sierra Leone and other places where the terrain is very difficult, that can get throughout the villages. What we don't want and what you all don't want is for people to have to spend 3 days to come to a major city or a distribution point and to take 3 days to get back and to have to do that every month. That would be incredibly difficult. We need to be thinking about how you get it out of Asmara to the regional location and then to the ultimate beneficiary; this is something that I know everyone in ERREC had a lot of experience in the past. It is just that we have a lot of food that is on its way and we need to make sure that the pipeline goes from here to outside in a more efficient manner. The other challenge is that the rainy season will make some of these places even more inaccessible, so the prepositioning of food at those regional posts is even more important. Thank you very much.
[end of document]