Ethiopia is experiencing one of the worst internal displacement crises in the world. According to Ethiopia National Disaster Risk Management Commission there are over one million internally displaced persons because of the conflicts that have arisen in Oromia, SNNP and Ethiopia's Somali regional states. While the government claims it is mitigating the conflict and returning the displaced to their homes, displaced people say they won't return to the conflict areas, writes BEHAILU AYELE, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER.
The first Saturday of August started casually for Elsa Animut, a single mother of two in her early 30s.
But it did not end that way.
She was serving customers at her modest eatery in Jijiga, capital of the Somali Regional State, when her ex-husband came running to deliver news of commotion in various parts of the town.
“He told us that the city was engulfed in chaos, and we had to leave right away,” she told Fortune.
They closed the restaurant and ran to their home. The situation would only get worse from there, with news of lawlessness and disorder spreading not only in the town but across the country.
Elsa and her children hid in a neighbour’s house and then took refuge in a church before they fled to the walled city of Harar, eight days later.
That fateful week was marked by confrontations between the federal government in Addis Abeba and the regional state. The situation would ease by the middle of the week after federal forces entered the city and the region’s president Abdi Mohamoud Omar, better known as Abdi Illey, resigned from office.
Elsa has since arrived in Addis Abeba to stay with her sister.
“I lost everything in my restaurant,” she says. “The only reason me and my children survived that horrible incident was that our neighbours gave us a safe harbour.”
Elsa is only one of nearly 150,000 people that have been forced to flee their homes and businesses as a result of unrest that has risen in the region.
And that is not all. There are other newly displaced people in the country following the inter-regional disputes that erupted in Gedeo and West Guji zones in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, & Peoples’ and Oromia regional states creating one million or so displaced people.
UNICEF’s Humanitarian Situation Report, released in June 2018, shows that a total of 2.4 million people were internally displaced between January and June of the same year. Since the release of the report, an additional 200,000 from the Guji-Gedeo conflict have been displaced, along with the 150,000 people displaced from the Somali Regional State.
This ranks Ethiopia as holding the fifth largest population of internally displaced people by conflicts and violence in the world. Syria led the ranking with 6.8 million, followed by Congo, Iraq and South Sudan, in that order. The report came from the International Displacement Monitoring Center, a centre under the Norwegian Refugee Council and serves as the world’s authoritative source of data and analysis on internal displacement.
The internally displaced from the Guji-Gedeo conflict have currently been settled within the regions, including in Bule, Dilla Zuria, Kochere, Gedeb, Wanago, Yirgachefe and Dilla, according to United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Over 600,000 of the displaced are now living in host communities, while the rest are sheltered in schools, government buildings, training centres, churches and various other buildings that are still under construction.
These figures only represent the number of recently displaced people. About a year ago, hundreds of thousands were displaced as a result of conflicts along the borders of the Oromia and Somali regional states.
One victim of those events is Yesuf Waqo, a 57-year-old father of six, who has since settled in the town of Negel, in Oromia, after his displacement from his hometown of Qersa Dola, in the Somali region.
“We lost our home, our farm and all our cattle,” he says.
Now, Yesuf and his family subsist on governmental and non-governmental aid.
“We’re being supported and provided for our daily needs, especially food,” says Yesuf. “But we’re in need of a permanent solution rather than receiving daily rations.”
Each individual receives 15Kg of wheat or maize and 4.5 litres of oil. Some, like Yesuf, sell portions of their rations to pay for other necessities.
The apparent suffering of the displaced people has garnered national and international attention.
There are currently 78 humanitarian organisations operating in Ethiopia to support the government-led effort to help the displaced. The mobilization to assist the displaced is led by United Nations agencies, the Ethiopian and International Red Cross societies, development agencies of the United States and European countries and the International Organisation for Migration in coordination with the government.
The government’s response is focused on bringing a lasting solution to the problem.
“The Federal and state governments of Oromia, Somali and SNNPR are working to find a lasting solution to the problem of the internal displacement crisis,” said Debebe Zewude, public relations and communications director of the Ethiopia National Disaster Risk Management Commission. “Traditionally, the elders convene peace and reconciliation conferences.”
Since April 2018 Ethiopia has allocated 68.7 million dollars for humanitarian intervention of the internally displaced.
To date, the United States, United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates have donated approximately 200 million dollars. Humanitarian assistance from the United States alone in the past two years has reached more than 800 million dollars.
In the next three month, the country urgently needs 277.5 million dollars to sustain the necessary humanitarian response, according to the UN humanitarian agency.
“Even if our pledge is helping, we still need to exert more,” said Abebe Ababulgu, head of the Commission’s office in Oromia.
“We have built over 1,000 temporary shelters and are also negotiating the return of the displaced to their homes,” says Tekalegn Tadesse, deputy administrator of Gedio Zone, regarding the Guji-Gedeo conflict. “We have managed to return 34,619 people to their hometowns.”
Despite the efforts and successes, however, the underlying socio-political and economic costs have not been addressed.
The displaced have collectively incurred a loss of 72 million Br following the Guji-Gedeo conflict, according to Abebe. The displaced from the Ethiopia Somali Region State have lost over six million Birr.
Elsa used to gain 300 Br a day from her small restaurant.
“My restaurant was damaged entirely,” she told Fortune. “I have nothing now.”
The concentration of people in small areas also worries the government.
An initial assessment by UN humanitarian agency in Jigjiga identified critical needs for water, sanitation, hygiene and health along with non-food items and services. It states that 35,450 displaced people sheltered in camps in Jigjiga are living in dire situations.
The Ministry of Health has recently launched the National Disaster Medical Assistance Team.
“The newly established assistant team is well-equipped and staffed with health workers to provide medical and causality assistance during emergency crisis,” says Amir Aman (MD), minister of health.
The Ministry has budgeted 26 million dollars to strengthen the public health emergency preparedness, surveillance and response. The Ministry also has been sending health professionals to refugee camps and host communities to help with their medical needs.
There is a general consensus that the main criteria of addressing the problems are finding political solutions.
“We need to resolve the problem of good governance so that a permanent solution is found,” Tarekegn argues.
Experts say the primary causes of the problem go beyond good governance.
“The major causes are the federal and democratic system of the nation,” says Yilebes Addisu (PhD), department head of Disaster Risk Management & Sustainable Development at Bahir Dar University.
This idea is shared by opposition political parties as well as academics.
Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation, who has extensive experience and understanding of the regional politics of the Horn of Africa, touched upon this issue in a paper he authored for the WPF.
“The way in which the constitution recognises diversity is very simplistic: it doesn’t permit the kinds of multiple and shifting identities that allow societies to adapt and modernise,” he wrote.
The displaced on the other hand see little hope in the future.
“If I go back, it would be to sell whatever is left of my property,” says Elsa.
To alleviate the concern of people like Elsa, Yilebes suggests that government should look beyond the political and economic measures.
“The psychological impact cannot be understated,” he says. “The government should deploy social workers to areas where the displaced are concentrated.”
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