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

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