Three FaminesSaturday, 13 November 2010
Curiously at present this book only appears to be published in Australia, although Amazon.com have it on Kindle. Thomas Keneally is a prolific author of fiction and non-fiction titles although he’s best known for the Booker Prize winning Schindler’s Ark which became the film Schindler’s List.
The three famines he studies include the Irish potato famine which kicked off in 1846. The famine which started in 1943 in Bengal is much less known, WW II and the approach of the Japanese forces through Burma provided plenty of distraction. The Bengal famine has hit the news recently with the publication of Churchill’s Secret War by Madhusree Mukerjee which accuses the British prime minister of a callous disregard for India.
Famine hit Ethiopia in the 1970s under Emperor Haile Selassie and contributed to his downfall only to return in even worse form in the 1980s under the despotic Mengistu. This was the famine which led to the Live Aid concert and a major international response. That’s also been in the news recently with accusations that Live Aid funds ended up buying weapons for rebel forces.
Keneally’s message is that the huge death tolls from these famines were unnecessary. Drought may kick a famine off, but it’s government policy which kills people. In Ethiopia in particular the government did its best to deny people were dying, contributed hugely to the deaths with military action and then either obstructed aid from getting to the famine victims or diverted it to the military forces. Sadly famine is still hanging around Ethiopia, ready to do its worst again and, as in the other Ethiopian famines, the current leadership is ready to deny the problem. Keneally concludes ‘It seems that there is a virus in Ethiopian government that transfers itself from regime to regime.’
The book concludes with quick assessments of other great famines and it’s always the same self-inflicted story. The post-revolution Russian famine of 1920-21 and the far worse famine in the Ukraine in the early 1930s were both the result of misguided policies. Put the ‘30s famine down to Joe Stalin who managed to kill 10 million people. He was topped by Chairman Mao who wiped out 15 million during the Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1961. That’s the officially admitted figure, Jasper Becker’s Hungry Ghosts came up with an even higher number and Frank Dikötter’s recently published Mao’s Great Famine raises the toll to 45 million!
▲ Father and son Kim Il Sung (the dapper despot) and famine master Kim Jong Il (the tubby tyrant) survey another bountiful harvest from a North Korean billboard.
And then there’s Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s tubby tyrant who concentrated on feeding his army while a million North Koreans starved to death from 1995. His equally rotund son Kim Jong Un looks like carrying on the Communist dynasty. Incidentally Ethiopia’s famine master Haile Mariam Mengistu is still around as well, he’s hosted by Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and lives on Garvin Close in the classy Harare enclave of Gun Hill.