Mardiya Mohamed has found one bright spot in her difficult existence since she was evacuated from the border being contested by Ethiopian and Eritrean armies. "At last we have somewhere to live," says the thirty-year-old widow, the sweep of her arm embracing an earth floor, walls of woven branches and an expanse of green plastic sheeting that keeps the sun at bay. "We are near the clinic and the school, and there's enough space to sleep."
Before moving to a food distribution site in the northern Tigray region of Ethiopia, Mardiya enjoyed none of these "luxuries". In October 1998, Mardiya and her three children (ages 3, 12, and 15) abandoned the small town of Rama to escape periodic mortar attacks. Along with seven displaced students, they took shelter with a farming family so impoverished that they possessed little more than the clothes they wore to till their fields.
The hosts had barely enough to feed themselves and struggled to accommodate their "guests" in their one-room, stone-walled house. In September 1999, before the start of the new school year, Mardiya moved to Abak, a site designated for the distribution of relief items. Here she sells tea, coffee and tella (sorghum beer) to the village's growing population.
Mardiya is not alone in her realization that she will not be going home soon. Tens of thousands of other displaced people have followed suit by spontaneously migrating to sites in northern Tigray where there are shops, water points, sanitation, schools and dispensaries.
They realize that their circumstances are no longer temporary. Even if peace is achieved soon, 100,000 people or more will be unable to return to plant their fields for years to come. The machinery of war has razed houses to the ground, particularly in the Badme area, and sowed hundreds of thousands of anti-personnel and anti-tank landmines.
The actions of the Relief Society of Tigray (REST), the United Nations and donors have gone a long way to avert catastrophe among those displaced by the war. Substantial progress was achieved between RI's visits to northern Tigray in mid-1999 and December 1999. With the exception of the Zalambessa-Alitena front, IDPs living within range of artillery have been moved to safety. Plastic sheeting for shelter - in short supply in mid-year - has been distributed to vulnerable populations while urban IDPs have received tents to ease crowding.
Yet there is no cause for complacency. Mardiya and thousands of others are transforming distribution centers into burgeoning villages of plastic-covered huts. About one quarter of the IDP population lives in temporary settlements in circumstances of great hardship. Abak, where Mardiya lives, is only one example. On the road to the Tsorona front, there is evidence of similar migration to distribution sites. And towns such as Adigrat, Enticho and Sheraro are overburdened by those who have fled the fighting.
At Waelanihibi, a makeshift camp 14 kilometers outside the town of Sheraro, 5,000 people are living in the most deplorable conditions. There is no sanitation, only one water point for the entire camp, and no drugs in the makeshift dispensary.
The failure of Ethiopia and Eritrea to cease fighting means that an emergency situation is evolving into what is, at best, a crisis that will endure over the medium term, if not longer. It is time that policymakers and planners among the Ethiopian government and international donors plan accordingly by formulating a strategy for the provision of infrastructure and income-generating opportunities for IDPs.
Refugees International, therefore, recommends that:
- Donors respond quickly to United Nations and Ethiopian government appeals by providing basic commodities, health and education services, water, sanitation and income-generation projects.
- The Ethiopian government, the UN system, donors and local and foreign NGOs collaborate to formulate a medium-term strategy for IDPs.
- UNFPA provide AIDS education programs at IDP sites.
- In the second half of 2000, after emergency food needs are met, food relief be distributed as food for work to give IDPs a sense of purpose and to generate modest development projects.
- The Relief Society of Tigray (REST) and the United Nations Country Team maintain channels of communication to allow for an unimpeded exchange of information.
Contact: Mary Anne Fitzgerald
or Steve Smith
(202) 828-0110 or firstname.lastname@example.org
RI's Africa Representative, Mary Anne Fitzgerald, recently returned from a visit to northern Tigray in Ethiopia.