Eritrea + 1 more

Eritrea: Assessment Trip to Zoba Anseba and Gash-Barka

Aside from a marked lack of resources and time, one of the main problems dogging our relief work for the recent war-displaced following Ethiopia's invasion of Eritrea on May 12, 2000, has been our near total ignorance as to the exact location of those fleeing the war. Our numbers have been based on population estimates of those areas currently under fire and word of mouth from those actually fleeing.

On May 26, 2000, a small group of UN officials organized a "rapid assessment" team in an attempt to get a fuller picture of the movements and locations of the Internally Displaced People (IDPs) from the lowlands of the Gash-Barka region. Working with ERREC and local government officials from zoba Anseba, we were able to locate 6 areas where IDPs have congregated (Fana, Shitel, Obelet, Shibukh, Adi Fakai, and Mensura), one distribution site (Hagaz) and one major IDP camp (Deb'at, formerly known as Ziron).

The IDPs we visited were mostly from the Gash-Barka region, some having already come from other displacement camps, fleeing Ethiopian shelling and bombardment of their towns, villages and homes.

"Why is it always civilians who are caught in the middle with the Ethiopians? They bombed us before [during the Eritrean 30-year struggle for independence] and now they're bombing us again. This is not about borders, this is about our homes. But it's always the civilians for them. Always."
Woman displaced from Tokombia

The one major IDP camp in zoba Anseba, Deb'at (approximately 23 km north of Keren), now houses over 46,000 IDPs, with another 40,000 - 50,000 already located and in the process of being registered for food aid and other services scattered over the Anseba region.

These numbers, however, fail to take into account those people we still haven't managed to locate who are hiding in the hills and valleys of Gash-Barka and Anseba out of fear of further shelling and bombing. We have no idea of their state, their needs or precisely where they are. IDPs we encountered along the way confirmed that nearly every valley is now home to thousands of IDPs, but those areas remained inaccessible to us and we were forced to concentrate on those groups we could more readily reach.

The good news is that those we were able to locate have chosen areas with good water sources. Most of the areas had boreholes, water points and clean, potable water. Unfortunately, those areas had little else to offer and the sight was unnerving. Very little ground cover or shade, oppressively hot temperatures, little resources for firewood, distant from any towns or distribution sites and no shelter. The few trees of any size that dotted the countryside were ringed with 50-60 IDPs seeking out every tiny bit of shade offered. And there they sat. And slept. And waited. They were overwhelmingly made up of small children.

Distribution Center

We first visited the town of Hagaz, which has been set up as a distribution site currently serving somewhere between 16,000 - 17,000 people. They reported that the vast majority of IDPs were still hiding in the surrounding valleys, coming in only fetch supplies, then hurrying back to their sites several kilometers away. They began arriving in the area May 19 and were still arriving in large numbers, some on their way to Keren or Asmara.

When the influx first began, the local population quickly mobilized itself to donate food, water and other supplies. Some IDPs also reported finding housing with the locals of Hagaz or other areas. However, local resources were very quickly depleted and ERREC was forced to step in with their own very limited resources. They quickly handed out 1-day rations and have since managed to bring in more: unmilled sorghum, sorghum flour, biscuits, and DMK. When we arrived, there was only DMK being distributed at 500 grams per person. All other stocks had been depleted.

"I came because I'd heard they were distributing food and my children were hungry. Some people here in Hagaz gave me this pot and some sugar because they saw my baby and felt sorry for me. We just want to go home. I've been walking for 3 days and I can't go on. My children are tired and hungry. Why did this happen?"
Woman displaced in Hagaz

The distribution area was filled with IDPs sitting in any available shade. They were mainly women and children, with some elderly men in the group. They claimed there were large populations of people either on the move behind them or still hiding in the valleys, unaware of the food and assistance in Hagaz. They said these people had no food, blankets or shelter of any kind, much as they themselves had none, but that they'd soon come to Hagaz when they heard there was food here. With already depleted stocks, the prospects seem dim.

Areas of Concentration

In all the areas we visited, we noticed certain similarities all the way through. With the exception of one camp, there was nothing whatsoever being done to provide shelter of any sort. The people were resting under the shade of very sparse tree cover, sleeping rough on the ground with no blankets, no bedding, and no cover. They'd been able to carry little to nothing with them, as their escape from the bombing and shelling of their towns or villages had been quite sudden.

"Why didn't I bring anything with me? There were bombs falling all around us and I have three children. When it comes to the choice of taking your children or your belongings, there's no real choice, is there? I carried my children."
Woman displaced in Fana

In one area, Obelet, the IDPs had managed to find scrub trees, weaving together the branches and lacing them with the women's scarves and shawls to create at least a rudimentary form of shelter from the sun. In another area near the town of Mensura, some of the IDPs had found scraps of cardboard on which to sleep, resting in a thick stand of trees straddling a now dry riverbed.

We noticed a great deal of sharing out of common resources: jerrycans, pots, tea kettles and food stocks. But those items were in extremely short supply and will quite frankly not serve over any period of time.

There were few mentions of health problems, aside from diarrhea and upper respiratory infections amongst some of the children, but the parents and local officials were very concerned that it was only a matter of time considering both their circumstances and their diet. As of this writing, the only thing being distributed amongst these people was DMK. Some of the adults complained that this was food for children (DMK is a locally produced high protein weaning food) and even that wasn't enough.

"No, that's okay. It IS a foolish question, but in such circumstances, people are allowed to ask foolish questions. We have nothing. No shelter, no blankets, no food. We sleep in our scarves and cover our children with our own bodies. And who's here to help us? We're only women and children and these old men. Of course we're afraid. Tell the world about this. Tell them how we're living. Tell them what's being done to us.
Woman displaced in Fana

In the few areas we visited, we located approximately 20,000 IDPs and have every reason to believe ERREC's estimation that another 20,000 are in areas nearby but inaccessible to our vehicles. The fear is that even greater numbers remain undiscovered in the winding valleys of the area. This estimate is for the Anseba region only. Our time in Gash-Barka was limited to one concentration area and didn't allow us a wider view of the region.


When I visited the camp of Deb'at (then known as Ziron) exactly one week ago, the population was estimated at 3,100 with a maximum capacity of 30,000. On May 26, the population stood at 46,089 -- not including the 11 buses that had arrived that day. Or the ones that have followed since then. For these 13,350 families, 2,000 tents had been provided (half by ERREC and half by the ICRC). That leaves 11,350 families without shelter. A further 2,000 blankets had also been provided -- one per family. That leaves 11,350 families without blankets, even the completely inadequate one per family.

Adequate levels of food had been distributed and current health matters were under control, though ERREC officials feared that the camp's overcrowding could quickly change that. Sanitation was a concern, but latrines were planned by Oxfam within the week and open water sources had been treated with chlorine and closed off. Four water tankers were transporting in water twice a day and three 10,000-liter water bladders had been set up around the camp, in addition to one central water storage tank, to serve the camp's water needs. This too seemed well under control for the camp population as it stood then. Should the camp population continue to increase, problems will undoubtedly arise. A further two boreholes were to be drilled within the week.

Cooking utensils were in extremely short supply but administrators said the people were slowly growing accustomed to their new situation, particularly as that situation began to stabilize -- relatively speaking. They were beginning to share their meager stocks and resources and starting to build up routines in their daily lives.

Three children's feeding centers had been set up the day before by Save the Children, but there remained a problem of separated and orphaned children. Four children had just been informed that their parents had been killed in the bombing of their villages, while others waited for information on lost family members. ERREC had already launched an effort at reuniting families and securing information.

"I was at school for a football game when the Ethiopians started bombing. I ran home to find my mother and sisters, but they weren't there. I asked everybody I knew, but no one had seen them. So, I came here alone. Maybe they made it to Sudan. Maybe they're here. Maybe they went somewhere else. Or maybe they're dead. I don't know."
Misghina Tesfamichael, age 17, at Deb'at


The main needs as we saw them focus around two different approaches: addressing the immediate short-term needs of those on the move, and then developing strategies for dealing with the longer-term needs of those in relatively stable camp situations.

First, the need for emergency ready-to-eat food cannot be over stressed. These people are exhausted and quickly growing malnourished. Without cooking utensils or adequate firewood supplies, they cannot cook for themselves -- assuming they even had food available to cook. Other forms of food supplies will, however, figure into longer term strategies of dealing with the IDPs. Keep in mind that these people are made up of primarily of young children, with women making up the next largest group, followed by the elderly. They have been on the move, on foot, for between 3-6 days in very hot and very inhospitable territory, under war conditions and without food or adequate water supplies. Their nutritional needs must be dealt with immediately and estimates on hand now state that in-country stocks of emergency food can supply us with another 3-4 days. No longer. Other supplies have been pledged and are on their way, but the number of IDPs is growing daily and the pledges in no way cover the already assessed needs.

Second, there is a great need to establish further IDP camps in safe areas to house those still on the move and those now gathered in concentration areas unsuitable for such large numbers. Within those camps, the major needs will be tents and blankets to shelter the IDPs both short-term and long-term.

In addition, we must purchase cooking utensils -- pots, knives, kerosene cookers, kerosene supplies, etc. -- to allow the IDPs to begin fending for themselves as much as possible. Longer-term, non-emergency food must also be supplied to meet this same goal -- milled grains, pulses, oil, salt and sugar.

Medical supplies and equipment are also being requested to deal with sickness, wounds and exhaustion, as well as expected pediatric needs.

I want to stress that we have supply routes already set up and can bring in all the supplies that we need -- it's simply a lack of funding on our part, on the part of the international NGOs and on the part of the various UN agencies currently operating in the field. We have means of airlifting the supplies into the country and then distributing them to those most in need. However, without proper funding, we cannot purchase those goods, fly in nor distribute those goods.

Several of you have offered to start clothing drives or other such very admirable gestures. But such drives will be too late, consuming too much time, money (for shipping) and manpower (in arranging the shipments). We need to focus our efforts on purchasing from local markets, funnelling as much money into local purchases as possible and getting goods here NOW. Not tomorrow or next week, but NOW. Buying locally will speed up our response time and help stimulate the local economy, thus lowering the number of Eritreans requiring assistance.

Immediate Future Challenge

The situation here is very desperate and growing worse by the day. Recent reports of Ethiopian incursions ever deeper into Eritrean territory suggest that tens of thousands -- possibly hundreds of thousands -- of people from the Debub region of Eritrea have been shelled and bombed out of their homes and are now heading north towards Asmara. We don't have the resources to deal with those in Gash-Barka, much less this new influx. Action must be taken now to deal with these people's immediate needs and we can best do that with cash donations which will allow us to purchase goods today and get them where they're needed immediately.

However, we must also keep in mind that, regardless of our best efforts and fundraising, unless this war is stopped, our efforts are in vain. The problem will continue and will grow and people will die. It's that simple. We must pressure the international community to become more involved and to demand an end to this horrible and costly war. We hope that you will join us in both these efforts.

Jeffrey L. Shannon
Eritrean Development Foundation
P.O. Box 2967
tel: (291 1) 18 40 57
fax: (291 1) 12 51 45