After clashes in south-western Ethiopia left over a million people displaced, many are now returning home to restart their lives in peace. The sky was full of stars the night the attackers came, remembers Mohamed.
“There was not a single cloud. They didn’t say a word. They set our homes on fire, slaughtered our animals and took all our belongings.”
Mohamed and his family, from the Oromo community, were among scores caught up in the ethnic violence that flared up in south-western Ethiopia earlier this year. The clashes displaced over a million people between April and August 2018.
Mohamed’s friend Edede, who belongs to the Gedeo community, was also a victim.
“That night I felt nothing but fear,” he recalls, cradling his two-year-old daughter, Bereket. “I thought: First they burn my house, next they will kill my family.”
“That night I felt nothing but fear.”
Both families were forced to flee their village of Chaikata. Having now finally returned, the pair are hoping that peace will prevail.
“I was born in this village,” says Mohamed. “My father, too, was born here. We never had any issues with the Gedeos.”
“Our children play together and go to school together,” adds Edede. “Oromos and Gedeos have always lived together peacefully here. We speak each other’s language. We marry each other. We have never known violence.”
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is currently responding to the urgent needs of nearly one million people displaced by recent violence in the Gedeo and West Guji areas.Upon request from the Ethiopian government, the agency has distributed 50,000 emergency relief kits and is now focusing on return and rehabilitation.
According to the government, over 200,000 people have returned to their areas of origin. However, greater efforts are still needed to reassure those who fear that violence and killings will start again.
Oromos and Gedeos who fled to different parts of the region describe extreme violence during village raids. Many witnessed killings, some of family members, as well as rape, livestock slaughter and houses burned to the ground.
When the violence started, Mohamed and his family crossed a river into the Oromo community to seek safety. His friend Edede and his family fled up the hill into the Gedeo community. “We couldn’t take anything with us,” says Edede. “We didn’t even have shoes.”
For two months, Mohamed and his family lived with 13 people in a small hut. “We slept on the floor and there was not enough food,” he says. “We were always hungry. Whenever there was something to eat, we would give it to the children first.”
“I prayed every night that he and his family were alive.”
“I thought of my friend often,” adds Edede Wone, who was sheltered at a local collective site. “I prayed every night that he and his family were alive.”
After two months, Mohamed heard that his Gedeo friends were returning to the village. “That is when we found the courage to go back too,” he says. “I felt so blessed to find my friend and his family there when we returned.”
Although happy to be home, Mohamed lies awake at night, anxious. “How will I provide for my family?” he asks. “We have lost everything. Our houses, our animals, our property.”
UNHCR is working hard to provide assistance like plastic sheeting, kitchen utensils and sleeping mats to those who are rebuilding their lives in safety and dignity.
On a recent trip to the Gedeo region, Clementine Nkweta Salami, UNHCR’s Representative in Ethiopia, witnessed the impact of the displacement.
“Monitoring the conditions of return and addressing the root causes of displacement is paramount to ensuring the sustainability of return movements,” she said. “It is easy to lose hope when faced with human suffering, but UNHCR has worked alongside the Ethiopian government for years. We have extremely dedicated staff and we remain committed to finding long-term solutions for these displaced families.”
The plastic sheeting UNHCR has given to both Edede and Mohamed will help keep their families safe from the heavy rains of the season.
As a result, Edede is hopeful for the future. “We feel safe here,” he says. “Our children will go back to school. We hope we will never have to flee again.”
“We will rebuild our lives and homes together. We could never do it alone.
A woman from the Gedeo community cooks at a site for displaced people in Ethiopia.
© UNHCR/Anna Hellge