Somali drought refugees

2011-07-25 11:53

Dolo Odo - Arriving by plane at Dolo Odo, where southern Ethiopia meets Somalia, the red African earth stretches as far as the eye can see, interrupted only by occasional acacia trees and dried-up shrubs.

Nothing grows in this wilderness, where lone donkeys and camels chew apathetically at dry bushes.

This area of Ethiopia stands in stark contrast to the capital, Addis Ababa, two and a half hours' flight away, and the green highlands in the north of the country.

Approaching the site of three refugee camps, a question hangs in the air: If starving people are thronging here for salvation, what must it be like in the places they are leaving behind?

But there is one sign of life, as the region's Genale river still has abundant water, despite the drought.

"The three camps in this region use it as a water source, when the water delivered by aid organisations runs out," says an employee of the World Food Programme (WFP).

The hunger and drought that has hit this region extends across the border to war-torn Somalia and to northern Kenya.

"Ethiopians cannot be granted refugee status in their own country, that is reserved for foreigners," explains Judith Schuler of WFP Ethiopia. Almost all of the people here arrived from Somalia.

Dirt and rubbish

Large white tents bearing the initials of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and the dark blue clinic tents of Doctors Without Borders, distinguish the three aid camps from the surrounding villages.

Mariam Gemale squats on the ground. The 19-year-old arrived in Dolo Odo two days earlier, after five days of walking.

"I am from Kone in Somalia and simply followed a group of people who said they were going to Ethiopia," she said from under a blue headscarf. She went without food for three days to get here. Her hands shake as she describes her ordeal.

"If I get food here, then I will stay," she says, insisting that she will never return home. At the same time, she does not fully understand where she is, or who the aid workers are.

"Many of the refugees have never had contact with the international community or the UN," says UNHCR-co-ordinator Jo Hegenauer. "Upon their arrival they either say, 'We are hungry,' or 'We are ill'."

A strong, dusty wind covers everything in a sticky red film, making it laborious to breathe. Attempts to inhale a lungful of fresh air invariably draw in a few flies. They are everywhere, attracted by the dirt and rubbish, and land on eyes, ears and corners of the mouth.

Tales of loss

The children in the camps appear indifferent to the flies, or they are too weak to brush the insects away, as they swarm over their faces.

The stories in the camps are all frighteningly similar tales of loss, frustration, hunger and death. But standing face to face with the refugees brings the people and their fates to life in a way that no amount of television coverage can do.

The nameless faces take on identities, such as Fatima Aden and her children Omeima, Rabe and Abshir. They arrived on an overcrowded lorry after losing all the livestock in their native village of Berdele.

Fatima's husband had to stay behind, as they did not have enough money for his fare.

Ibrahim is a widower from Luk. He lost his ten cows to the drought, and arrived with his four children on a donkey cart. "We were all in real danger in Somalia but, thanks to Allah, my children are healthy."

Desperate experience

Dehebe is less lucky. All nine of her children are ill with malaria or diarrhoea, and are badly malnourished. Two of her sons are lying in a hut they built of twigs and rags in the camp, too weak to stand up.

The family walked five days to reach the border, after Dehebe's mother and sister died of starvation. "We lost everything, our farm and our animals. All we now have is our children, and we will fight for their survival," says Dehebe.

Everybody in the camp is united by one desperate experience, which Mariam Gemale tries to put words to.

"Hunger is hunger. You cannot explain it," she says.


Read more on:    somalia  |  ethiopia  |  east africa  |  east africa hunger

Read News24’s Comments Policy publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Add your comment
Comment 0 characters remaining

Inside News24


Anglican Church urges people to vote

The Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba has called on his congregation to use their right to vote, amid a campaign to spoil ballot papers.


Latest elections multimedia

Why Jack Parow wants you to vote on 7 May
The ad the SABC doesn't want to air
Elections 2014 in one cartoon
This year's election posters
  • Thursday Sir Lowry's Pass - 05:35 AM
    Road name: Old Sir Lowrys Pass Road
    TRAFFIC LIGHTS not working at Bezweni Road
  • Thursday Cape Town - 05:35 AM
    Road name: Buitengracht Street
    TRAFFIC LIGHTS not working at Waterkant Street
More traffic reports...

Jobs in Cape Town [change area]

Property [change area]

Travel - Look, Book, Go!

Escape winter, head to Mauritius

Escape winter by spending 7 nights in Mauritius' tropical bliss from R13 215 per person sharing. Includes return flights, airport transfers and accommodation. Book now! - shop online today

Get many eggs in one basket!

Gaming bundles: 2 Super Hits games for R99, 3 Disney games for R99 and more + exclusive accessory bundles only available on While stocks last. Shop now!

25% off bestselling books!

The Real Meal Revolution by Tim Noakes, Jeffrey Archer’s Be Careful What You Wish for, Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor E. Frank and many more titles. Shop now!

Up to 25% off electronics

Buy top electronics and save up to 25%. Such as’s 1# selling product the gobii eReader, Patriot X Porter flash drive, Asus Nexus 7” 3G tablet, Samsung Galaxy SIII, Lenovo G580 Notebook and many more. Shop now!

DStv HD PVR Decoder now R949

The DStv HD PVR Decoder has further revolutionised the television experience with lifelike viewing, sharper images, more vibrant colours and precision picture quality. Now R949, save R550. Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

Up to 30% off appliances & homeware

Save up to 30% on appliances and homeware this Easter! Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now.

OLX Free Classifieds [change area]

Samsung Galaxy s4

Mobile, Cell Phones in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 24

Best bargain in big bay

Real Estate, Houses - Apartments for Sale in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

VW Golf 6, 1.6 Trendline (Excellent condition)

Vehicles, Cars in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

Canon EOS 600D

The Canon EOS 600D Digital Camera puts the widely respected...

From R5389.95

I'm shopping for:


You may be good at organising events but they do take their toll on your energy levels. You may need some time out today just more

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.