Wednesday, April 22, 2015

'Invisible' Emergency in Ethiopia


Naomi Steer Ethiopian Mission - April 2015



A 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 border.

This 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.

I 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. 

While the situation remains difficult, I was amazed at what my UNHCR colleagues and partners had managed to achieve despite the undeniable challenges.

On 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.
When 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

On 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 December 2013.


At 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.

Sitting 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. 



Nyayul 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.

Kule Camp

We 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.

The 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.

Nyakhor: 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.

There 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. 


There 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.


Nutrition Centre

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



The staff 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.

Adequate 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 malnutrition.

Tierkidi Refugee Camp

Shelter 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. 


I 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

If 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 bench press.

Enoch 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.

Arriving 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. 


For 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.

It 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.

A 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’.

I 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.’ 

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