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In-depth: IDPs in Western Oromia suffer from lack of aid, forced returns amid volatile security

Shambu Bus station IDP camp in Horro Guduru Wollega was closed weeks ago after IDPs were totally expelled (Photo: Addis Standard)

By Abdi Biyenssa @ABiyenssa

Nekemte, Oromia – Internally Displaced People (IDP) in Western Oromia, particularly the East Wollega, West Wollega, Kellem Wollega, and Horo Guduru Wollega zones have endured dire humanitarian crisis for years in an area where relief operations are constrained by continued security threats. Government sponsored forced returns have exacerbated the crisis pushing IDPs to street begging.

The IDPs were uprooted from their villages in the context of ongoing conflict between the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) and government forces, but mainly following recurrent attacks by the non-state armed militia called Fano. Districts that border the Amhara region such as Abe Dongoro, Agemsa, Jardaga Jarte, and Amuru in Horro Guduru Wollega, as well as Kiramu, Gida Ayana and Gute in East Wollega have been the epicenters of the displacements.

According to a recent assessment conducted by a humanitarian organization that Addis Standard managed to obtain, out of estimated 1.4 million IDPs currently residing in 141 camps spread over 11 zones and 96 districts in the Oromia region, 753,674 displaced persons are in the four zones of Western Oromia.  The assessment further revealed that 230,017 people were displaced from Horro Guduru, whereas 282,245 people were displaced from the East Wollega zone.

According to the assessment, the enormous destruction of private and public properties such as residential houses, schools, hospitals, and other vital public service infrastructures in the area as a result of the conflict and attacks by armed groups have worsened the situation of people who were forced to abandon their villages in search for refuge elsewhere. 

Displaced twice

Halima Ahmed, 29, currently residing in Shambu town in Horro Guduru Wollega zone, is among the IDPs who shared their troubling experiences with Addis Standard. “I had experienced the hardships of displacement not once but twice within a span of six years,” she told Addis Standard.

Halima was born in Babile district, East Hararghe Zone, Oromia Region. She used to live in Jigjiga, the capital of the Somali region, where she built a meaningful life for herself and her two children selling bread. However, in 2017, political unrest and conflicts erupted between the Somali and Oromia regions, and Halima became one of the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Oromos expelled from the region, leaving behind everything she earned through hard work. 

After months of difficulties in different temporary shelters, Halima and her two kids sought refuge in Western Oromia, hoping to find solace and stability. Together with other displaced people, they were eventually settled in a village named Harar Jarso in the lush and fertile lands of Amuru district of the Horro Guduru Wollega zone,  near the Oromia-Amhara border.

In Harar Jarso village, she began to rebuild her life once again. She started farming with determination and hope, and managed to make a livelihood for herself and her kids. However, fate seemed to have another plan in store for her. Unexpectedly, Halima found herself uprooted from her newly established home following  a cross border attack by the Fano armed group in September 2022. The pain of displacement resurfaced as she was forced to leave behind the progress she had made in Harar Jarso and seek refuge elsewhere.

Halima, a strong-willed mother, and her two children, including her thirteen-year-old son Ibrahim, a diligent student, found themselves displaced twice. During their journey to Shambu, the zonal capital of Horro Guduru, they tragically stumbled upon the lifeless bodies of six people from their village, leaving Ibrahim traumatized. The haunting sight of death now torments him, causing him to wake up crying at night. 

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Halima is one of the thousands of internally displaced people in the Horo Guduru Wollega zone, and were temporarily sheltered at the Shambu bus station IDP center. During her 11 months stay in the IDP site, she endured repetitive gender-based violence including rape.

For most part of the 11 months the IDPs in the center were without humanitarian aid, and later, they were expelled without their consent, and some were forcefully returned to their homes, Halima conveyed. “Some people, myself included, quietly left the IDP camp,” to avoid forced return, Halima, who is now on the street, begging to feed her two children, said.

Like Halima, Abebech Tefera used to reside in the IDP site at the Shambu bus station. Abebech and her family were forced to flee their home in Haroo village, Kiramu district of the neighboring East Wollega zone on 12 August 2022, following a raid by the Fano militia. Together with her husband and her two children she crossed to the Horro Guduru zone and sought shelter at the IDP site.

At the Shambu bus station IDP camp, Abebech Tefera and her family faced immense psychological trauma and economic hardships. She said, “we are constantly haunted by the memories of our forced departure and the uncertainty of our future”.

“Jobs were scarce, and the few available were low-paying and unstable. I struggled to make ends meet, often without proper meals or basic necessities”

Forced returns

“The camp was overcrowded, and there were limited resources and inadequate infrastructure. We lived in cramped conditions, sharing a small tent with other families,” Abebech recalls. The lack of privacy and personal space added to their psychological distress, leaving them feeling vulnerable and helpless. In what appeared to have exacerbated the situation, after several months at the IDP site, Abebech along with her family and other internally displaced people were expelled from the IDP center. 

As days turned into weeks, Abebech, desperate to provide for her children, returned to the East Wollega zone and sought employment opportunities in Nekemte City. However, she said “jobs were scarce, and the few available were low-paying and unstable. I struggled to make ends meet, often without proper meals or basic necessities,” she told Addis Standard.

The destitute mother eventually found herself on the streets of the bustling city of Nekemte, her two young children clinging to her tattered clothes. With no home, no job, and no support whatsoever, Abebech resorted to begging to feed her little ones. She would often go without food herself, ensuring that her children had something to eat. Her heart ached as she watched them grow thin and weak, but she remained resolute in her pursuit to provide them with a better life.

After they were forcefully evacuated IDP camps, many displaced people are nor compelled to beg on the streets of cities like Nekemte to feed themselves, their families (Photo: Addis Standard)

Tesfaye (name changed for safety concerns), member of the IDP committee in Shambu told Addis Standard that local officials including the zonal police, and militia chiefs, ruling party zonal office head, head of the Buusaa Gonofaa, regional relief commission and the mayor of Shambu city had asked the IDPs to return to their homes at different times.

After several failed attempts to convince the IDPs to return to their areas, the police coerced the displaced individuals into cars, including Isuzu trucks, mini-buses, and Sino trucks and forcefully took them back to their homes without any assistance or guarantee for their safety

“We told them that no one hates to go home but we didn’t want to go back to death since the source of the problem that evicted us is not solved,” Tesfaye said. After several failed attempts to convince the IDPs to return to their areas, the police coerced the displaced individuals into cars, including Isuzu trucks, mini-buses, and Sino trucks and forcefully took them back to their homes without any assistance or guarantee for their safety, he added.

“When we voiced our concerns about security, the zonal police head said that the Fano acquired all the weapons by selling their properties, and advised us to do the same to protect ourselves and not to depend on them for assistance. Additionally, the police chief said “Shane” [ a term used by officials to refer to the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA)] as the source of this turmoil and accused us of supporting a terrorist group,” Tesfaye conveyed.

Mayor of Shambu city Negero Keno, however denied that the internally displaced people were returned to their homes without their consent.

Experts say the prevention of internal displacement should be the main task of governments through addressing underlying factors that cause displacement, such as natural catastrophes, poverty, and violence. But, in case that is not possible, by encouraging the IDPs to return home voluntarily, safely, and with dignity, or to be resettled somewhere else if they so choose, governments have the responsibility to aid IDPs in reconstructing their lives and means of subsistence.

Marga Fekadu, a human rights lawyer and lecturer at Wolkite University School of Law, asserted that the return of IDPs to their place of origins must be voluntary, and before the return the cause must be addressed and the IDPs shall be compensated for damage they incurred. He also stresses the need to ensure justice and accountability to make the return a success.

Befkadu Diriba, a senior human rights protection officer at the Ethiopia Human Rights Defenders Center, added that the government has to ensure the IDPs have access to necessities like food, water, shelter, medical treatment, and education when they return. Access to livelihood should also be considered, he added.

Befkadu emphasized that it is crucial that the government’s responsibility to safeguard and support internally displaced people extends beyond the first couple of weeks of their displacement. 

The internally displaced people who have sought refuge in various locations within communities while a significant number of them are engaged in begging on the streets of towns and cities including the zonal capital Nekemte

Elsewhere in Western Oromia, hundreds of thousands of IDPs, including those who were forced to return to their places of Origin without assistance, are in peril. Abdisa Lamessa, a program coordinator at a local charity group, Gurmu Development Association, told Addis Standard that residents of 18 out of 19 villages of Kiramu district in East Wollega were displaced and have been sheltered inside Kokofe elementary school, in Gida Ayana and Kiramu elementary school before they were made to evacuate days before the start of the 2016 Ethiopian academic year. 

According to Abdisa, these internally displaced people have sought refuge in various locations within communities while a significant number of them are engaged in begging on the streets of towns and cities including the zonal capital Nekemte. 

As is the case for Wakuma Hirpha’s two children, Samuel and Rahel, the displacement has forced thousands of students out of school. Wakuma was a wealthy farmer in Darge Koticha village of Jargada Jarte district in Horro Guduru Wollega zone until he was displaced in 2022. For Wakuma it wasn’t easy to leave behind his hard earned wealth but his children’s safety came first. After days of an arduous trek on foot he arrived in Shambu city, and was sheltered at the overcrowded Jammeda stadium  IDP camp. 

For families like Wakuma’s, who came from relatively stable economic backgrounds, the psychological impact of living in cramped camps with little access to essential supplies including health facilities is profound

There was no food aid, no proper sanitation and clean water inside the camp posing health risks, including infectious diseases, Wakuma said. His son Samuel fell sick and suffered a lot in the camp as there were no health services, he added. After they were expelled from the camp, Wakuma and his two children are now living with one of their relatives in Nekemte city. The two children have been out of school for more than a year since they were displaced.

For families like Wakuma’s, who came from relatively stable economic backgrounds, the psychological impact of living in cramped camps with little access to essential supplies including health facilities is profound, Tsion Getachew, a psychologist who works for an international humanitarian organization, said. Tsion Getachew spoke on the psychological impact of living in and after IDP camps. Coupled with prolonged stay out of school, it could potentially have a permanent impact on children’s mental health, she warned.

Tsion asserted that it is essential to make sure access to psychological counseling and treatment is an integral part of any IDPs relief or rehabilitation effort. Lawyers, Marga and Dawit, on their part highlighted the need for comprehensive laws and policies that guide the support for IDPs.

But for IDPs like Halima, Abebech and Wakuma, access to food to sustain their children’s lives is an utmost priority. AS

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