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Op-ed: From fractured foot to broken heart: My trip to Oromia region of Ethiopia in April 2023 – Sr. Obse Lubo

Obse Lubo’s in action during EAMRF mission in Oromia in April 2023 (Photo: Obse Lubo)

Addis Abeba – Over the last fourteen years, East African Medical Relief Foundation (EAMRF) has helped serve people in some of the most desperate places. With the help of donors and the community, we’ve been able to provide basic medical care, cataract, cleft lip, fistula surgeries, training/education for the nurses and community at large for people throughout the Western region of Ethiopia. Recently, when preparing for my trip back home, I fractured my toes on my left leg into three places while playing with my kids. Though I felt excruciating pain, I chose to continue because the situation on ground- reality was one of the worst it’s ever been.

The repeated attacks by the paramilitary armed group from the neighboring Amhara region, referred to as “Fanno” by the locals, has caused hundreds of thousands of civilians in the border districts of Western Oromia, Ethiopia to flee from their homes and live in displaced makeshift shelters. These makeshift shelters are set up by the Zonal Authorities in different parts of the region; there were/are over 1.5 million of Internally Displaced People or IDPs all over the region.

These IDP camps often lacked necessities, including medical services, access to sanitation/hygiene supplies, having extremely limited resources, lack of water,  and were often overcrowded with children having no access to continued education. They were the bare minimum of a shelter for people who have been traumatized and forced to escape the heinous attacks, often arriving with nothing, some without even the clothes on their back. For instance, over 30,000 IDPs have settled in one of the IDP camps we went to visit at Shambu Bus Station, Horo Guduru Wollega zone. 

Ethiopia has seen the biggest influx of IDPs between September-December 2022 with 141 IDP centers in the Oromia region, with most of them located in Western and Southern Oromia. The four Wollega zones in Western Oromia host 1.2 million IDPs or 80% of the total IDPs in the Oromia region and other IDPs are in Guji Zone and Eastern Oromia.

There are about 17 IDP camps in Western Oromia, we visited 3 of the camps. Upon arriving at Shambu and Guji IDP camps, we met some people who had been there for up to 5 months, babies that were born in the camp, pregnant women that were expecting to give birth, 6-8 family members often living in 1 tent. We heard stories from some of the elders at Girja IDP site, in Guji Zone, that they had been forced to leave their home 11 times over the past 4 months alone. They had limited access to food and had witnessed atrocities they would never forget.

At Girja IDP site, in Guji Zone (Photo: Obse Lubo)

As often in times of war, the women face the most violent outcomes. One woman named Lemane told me that her husband had been killed, she had 3 children including an infant with whom she had escaped to her neighbor’s house. This was a neighbor that they were very close to, who had helped raise her children with her. The woman let her in and fed her and for the moment she and her kids felt somewhat safe. However, that night the woman’s husband came home with a machete and made claims that he would kill anyone that doesn’t belong to his group (supposedly ethnic Amhara), though they had lived in peace over the years. His wife calmed him down, but Lemane, after listening to the man, felt frightened and could not sleep in the same house and left late that night escaping whatever fate may come into the jungle. Lemane said she would rather die in the jungle than be killed by her neighbor. The plights of civil war are deeply mentally traumatic. The lack of trust and hatred that can be blown over time are so unexpected; people can’t really breathe peacefully.

Similar to that woman, many of the people had walked for hours, had left all of their property, their homes, cars, cattle’s, farms, and shops destroyed and looted. They had lost children, husbands, parents, and arrived at the camp half-dead, sick, swollen legs, and full of terror. Men had to watch their female family members gang raped and live to tell the story to place fear in others.

Many women were breastfeeding babies that weren’t theirs because the mother’s had died on the road. Beyond the death in the hands of others, suicide – especially after public raping’s by the “Fanno” paramilitary were high. The shame and trauma of watching a family member in that position was intolerable. Anxiety, Post Stress Traumatic Disorder (PTSD), insomnia, and all of the ailments chaotic and violent life can create were the norm within the camps. Though without the right diagnoses, many just knew they were no longer the same people and barely alive in their thoughts.

Arriving at camps, I was overwhelmed, feeling unprepared for what I was facing and how I was feeling. However, I knew along with the colleagues I was traveling with, listening to the stories and providing the donations we had brought would help even in the slightest way. We handed over 800 reusable menstrual pads for women/girls. These kits were donated from the “Days for Girls” organization based in the USA. We bought and distributed formula milk, soap, scalp oil, shoes, and food items. We held mini trainings to create awareness about basic hygiene in order to help reduce the spread of infections among people at the camp. We answered questions, held hands, listened to their stories, and made notes of what else they would really need to continue to survive.

At an IDP camp inside Shambu Bus Station, Horo Guduru Wollega zone (Photo: Obse Lubo)

As the day went on, I was taken aback by the resilience and hope deep in the soul of the people. They believed they would one day return home, raise their kids in safety, provide an education for their kids and lead a successful life. They were grateful for the life they still had and for the help (though for me meager) that we brought. On every mission trip to Oromia, Ethiopia, the condition of the human spirit amazes me.

I was also happy to see that the IDPs were getting some support from the local host communities. The cooperation between the regional government entities who are running the camps and other organizations such as church groups, various NGOs, universities, etc. was commendable, everyone was doing their best to support and contribute to the wellbeing of the IDPs. It helped solidify that we as an NGO (EARMF) were in collaboration with a community of people, that the Oromo people support each other when the needs arise. The government cannot solve all the IDP problems in the entire Oromia region of Ethiopia, it will require our collective action to help our people resettle and rehabilitate.

There is so much left to be done. This will be months, maybe a year of work in front of us. Considering that children account for more than half of the displaced people, there needs to be fast and critical action to help provide sustainable solutions. The people at the IDPs need basic necessities’, financial support, psychological support, and more. They need supplies, support, and continued community resilience and focus. From clothing, hygiene and medical supplies to formula for the newborn babies. 

There is no delusion that we exist as an entity, EAMRF, for these types of moments and we’ve seen some of the worst situations in human nature. However, this last trip was one that surpassed my expectations on the conditions of suffering, and what I know is that our community can come together to do our best to help. 

I am greatly encouraged by  International Oromo Health Professionals Association (IOHPA),Oromo Physicians Association (OPA),  Oromia Health Bureau and other local organizations who supported EAMRF’s recent mission trip through logistics, professional, and financial support. I’m forever indebted for OPA’s team who were  on the ground with me in Horo Guduru, Wollega and Girja, Guji Zone supporting the IDPs and providing medical care to those in need.

I went thinking about dealing with a fractured foot while doing the work, and I left Oromia with a broken heart for what we are going through as people.

However, I also left knowing that the volunteering, the supplies, the education, the support from our community is something that we do have control over – we can get up in the morning and take what we have and help those that need it – the ease in which we can collaborate can, will, and does change one life at a time. AS

Editor’s Note: Obse Lubo is a registered Nurse at Stanford University Medical Center, Palo Alto, California. She is also the founder of East African Medical Relief Foundation (EAMRF).

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