Naomi Steer Ethiopian Mission - April 2015
few weeks ago I visited the Gambella region of Ethiopia which over the last
year has seen more than 195,000 refugees from South Sudan flee across the
is one of the many ‘invisible’ emergencies UNHCR is dealing with at any one
time. It is surprising that that there is little or no media coverage of what
is one of the largest refugee crises in Africa today. In fact, Ethiopia is now
hosting the largest refugee population in Africa with 700,000 refugees. And
with only 10% of its operations funded, UNHCR needs much more support.
had heard about the dire situation for refugees in the camps in Gambella when
the emergency first began back in 2013. This was compounded by a very harsh
environment (the week my visit temperatures were averaging 45 degrees). There
is lack of amenities and many of the newly arriving refugees are malnourished
and in generally poor condition.
the situation remains difficult, I was amazed at what my UNHCR colleagues and
partners had managed to achieve despite the undeniable challenges.
the day I flew in from Addis Ababa, there was an unseasonal break in the high
temperatures. Rain clouds hovered but a torrential downpour only came on the
last night making travel the next day tricky.
the rain comes, large parts of the Gambella region, which extends across a
swampy flood plain, become submerged. Last year two large refugee camps -
Leitchuor and Nip Nip - were overwhelmed by flooding. This year, to avoid a
repeat of the disaster, UNHCR is embarking on an ambitious plan to transport
50,000 refugees settled in the most vulnerable areas to higher grounds. It’s a
race against time and UNHCR with its Ethiopian government partner ARRA are mobilising
every conceivable form of transport including boats, helicopters and trucks, to
relocate refugees to a new refugee camp JEWI ( pronounced Jowie) which has been
carved out of the bush 12 kilometres from Gambella town.
Pagak Border Transit Centre
arrival I go straight to the South Sudan/Ethiopian border crossing at Pagak. It
is here that thousands of refugees crossed over when tensions between the South
Sudanese President and his Deputy sent the country into civil war at the end of
the Pagak Border Transit Centre I sit down to talk with new arrivals who are
about to be registered by UNHCR. Nyatiang Emok Dey tells me she had walked for
seven days from her village in Upper Nile State with her three young children.
She describes the trip to me as ‘very terrible’ and you can see the exhaustion
in the bodies and faces of the young family. She is one of the thousands of
mothers who have fled South Sudan. In fact 90% of the camps I visit over the
next few days are made up of women and children.
quietly beside Nyatiang is an old woman who could be anything from 50 to 80
years old. It is hard to tell but her rheumy eyes have clearly seen years of
hardship. Nyayul Chol doesn’t know her age. She tells me she arrived with her
grandson after travelling by truck and then walking the rest of the way. She
looks so frail I wonder how she managed. Once in the camp she will be issued with a package for the
elderly – a special ration of maize, a commode, extra cooking utensils,
mattress, extra blankets and crutches (if necessary) and eye glasses.
is one of the many elderly people I meet in the camp. This strikes me as
unusual as often older people will stay back in the village despite the
dangers. But it appears that everyone is upping stumps from the hardest hit
South Sudanese states of Unity, Upper Nile and Jonglei. These new arrivals will
be taken to either Kule or Tierkidi camps not far along the road.
travel that road to Kule camp ourselves with a steady stream of locals herding
their cattle or selling local produce. Kule is home to about 47,000 refugees,
most of whom arrived after a second wave of violence hit South Sudan in May
2014. My first meeting is with community leaders elected by their fellow
refugees to voice their concerns and needs. They list food as their number one
priority followed by shelter, education, livelihoods and SGBV prevention.
women leaders give firsthand accounts of being attacked collecting firewood
outside the camp or taking their maize and wheat grain to the nearby ‘shanty’
town to be milled. There is a primary school but no secondary school. Umjimma
Abdahado, a 43-year-old mother of seven, suggests the need for a ‘women’s
friendly school’ so women can also learn to read and write - a sign of the
social changes resulting from displacement. Back home in South Sudan, men would
be more literate and would handle ‘outside business’. Here, with so many
husbands or fathers absent, women are having to take on new roles and need to
be literate to do so.
the very name symbolises the ongoing cycle of violence South Sudan has
experienced. Nyakhor means ‘child of war’. Thirty-five years after being born
in conflict she now sadly sees her own children becoming ‘children of war’.
Nyakhor however is determined that the time in refugee camps won’t be a wasted
opportunity for her family. ”We will not sit simply like blind men or women but
we will do something,” she tells me.
is certainly no ‘sitting still’ in the child friendly space funded by UNHCR and
run by partner Plan Ethiopia. The under 5 ‘safe place to play’ is a hive of
activity with kids turning out amazing Lego constructions: bridges, supply
trucks and wheels. Most of the staff are
also refugees and they are glad of the small income this work provides.
are so many unaccompanied children here who have become separated from their
parents during the fighting. They are fostered out to relatives or other
families and receive a special package of Non Food Items including clothes,
blankets, books and school supplies. I
hand over some basketballs and soccer balls which are quickly swept up by the
kids in a fast and furious game on the rocky ground.
Next stop is
the Nutrition Centre run by NGO partner GOAL Program. Myamal Galwak sits
quietly in the Outpatient Therapeutic Clinic nursing her nine month old baby
who is contentedly sucking on a sachet of peanut based high protein
Ready-To-Use-Food called Plumpy’nut – all the while giving loving smiles to mum
and coy ones to me.
say this tiny but healthy girl was at death’s door two months ago when she
arrived in the camp severely malnourished and sick with watery diarrhoea. After
being put on an intensive feeding program she has gained weight and is on the
road to recovery.
nutrition is a big issue here and high levels of malnutrition persist. Last
year UNHCR and WFP mounted an extraordinary appeal calling for help to fund
feeding needs for displaced people inside South Sudan and for refugees like the
people I am meeting now. Australian donors through Australia for UNHCR
responded by donating over $600,000 in support. Across Gambella the very high
rate of Crude and Under 5 Mortality rates have been reduced to acceptable
levels largely due to the efforts of UNHCR and its partners managing diseases
such as malaria, dehydration secondary to diarrhoea and complications of severe
Tierkidi Refugee Camp
is another big need. Standing on the hill looking out over Tierkidi refugee
camp I see the neatly ordered rows of tents stretch out below me. Despite being
here for more than nine months, 85% of the camp still ‘lives under canvas’.
With the average tent life only six months, upgrading accommodation is really
urgent and I am hoping Australia for UNHCR can provide support in this area.
visit a family in one of the transitional shelters with bamboo walls, mud
daubing and a thatched roof based on the traditional village home called the 'tukel’. It is surprisingly cool inside and Nyakong Loung Louy has somehow
managed to create a welcoming home for her family. A table holds neatly stacked
cooking pots and dainty tea glasses. Sleeping mats hung over a roof beam.
Nyakong tells me she comes from Bor, ‘a proper town’ where her husband had a
good job working with NGOs. Her 16-year-old daughter, Nyaku, arrived here at
the camp before her. Believing she would never see her family again, she tells
me, she was overwhelmed when she was reunited with her mother. 'I couldn’t
believe I would see her again. I thought she might have died. But when I saw
her standing there I was overwhelmed and thanked God. You think you will be
separated but then you come together again,' she still says with disbelief and
amazement in her voice.
RADA Rehabilitation Centre
I need any further evidence of the resilience of refugees here and the
commitment of UNHCR and its partners to do their best, my last stop confirms
it. We arrive at the RADA Rehabilitation Centre. Inside, a number of disabled
men are exercising with great purpose on stationary bikes, treadmills and a
Dak is the Chair of the Committee for Disability. The 21-year-old comes from
the Upper Nile. Disabled from the age of two by polio, Enoch appears very small
in his wheelchair. However, after I strike up a conversation with him, he is
very engaged and emanates a huge determination and spirit. He tells me after
his village was attacked, he fled with his aunt and her 7 children. At first he
wheeled himself in his tricycle wheelchair along the dirt road. He then got a
punctured tyre and the family was unable to push him in the mud. His aunt and
cousins then carried him for five days. He says they saw no other transport in
all that time.
at Pagak with thousands of other refugees at the height of the emergency, Enoch
spent 21 days living without any support facilities. As newly elected Chair of
the Disability Committee he is working with UNHCR and other partners to improve
conditions for the many disabled in the camp, including latrines with room
enough for commodes, more wheelchairs and crutches.
Bol Gatkuoth, this is the second time he has become a refugee. He spent his
youth in a refugee camp where he says he got his education at both primary and
secondary school. Returning to South
Sudan in 2009, he started working with the rehabilitation of child solders but
then war broke out again and he fled with his young family, first to the UN
Compound in Malakal, South Sudan and then on foot across the border. On the way
his young child died from dysentery.
is almost unimaginable to me how this smart young man still has any optimism
after what he has endured but Bol tells me 'you have to look to the future'. Facing perhaps many more years in exile, he hopes to get a scholarship to
enable him to undertake a Masters in Social Work so he can help people.
number of the disabled men I met were victims of disease but there were others
like 19-year-old Gatiwal who lost his right leg after being shot in the
conflict back in South Sudan. UNHCR and RADA helped him get a prosthetic leg
fitted in Addis Ababa. Gatiwal tells me the fitting rubs against the smashed
bone in his upper thigh but he says stoically that ‘I am proud now to be
standing on two legs again’.
feel quite humbled by the strength of those I have met - both refugees and aid
workers. When I apologise for only being able to bring a few footballs, one of
the staff kindly admonishes me. ‘What you (Australia for UNHCR) have given is
not a little thing, it’s a great contribution. And it’s more than funds or
balls. You coming here make us feel that someone is looking after us. It’s not
a minor thing.’