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SocietyNo way home for more than 3 million IDPs withering in camps

No way home for more than 3 million IDPs withering in camps

Her young son sat still at her feet and tears streamed down her face as Tibletsi Kassa waved her hand, gesturing at the bare communal tent she calls home. Tibletsi, 48, and her son live in Seba Karre, one of the many camps sheltering internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the outskirts of Mekelle, Tigray.

In November 2020, she and two of her youngest children fled their home in Humera as war erupted in Tigray. Four of Tibletsi’s elder children all lost their lives in the fighting, which lasted two years.

Tibletsi and her kids trekked through hundreds of miles of desolate landscape and half-abandoned villages, all the while taking care to avoid soldiers, for two whole months before they reached Shire. They spent only two weeks in the town before setting off on another perilous journey to Mekelle, the regional capital. It took them close to two months to make the trip.

“There were no cars. We had no idea who was who. We had to hide from everyone wearing military uniforms,” she told The Reporter.

It has been more than three years now since she settled in an IDP shelter.

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“We have no food. Water is scarce here. We try to share whatever we have with one another. I think that shows you how things really are here,” said Tibletsi.

Her family depends on humanitarian aid, which comes in the form of 20 or 30 kilograms of wheat every three or four months, to survive. But even this is drying up.

Tibletsi is one of 4.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance in Tigray. Aid agencies estimate up to three-quarters of them are receiving occasional and dispersed food aid.

The prospect of starvation is very real for Tibletsi and her young children.

“I don’t know how many days without food my kids can cope with. I’m scared to death about their future,” said Tibletsi.

She told The Reporter that regional officials have told her and countless others like her that they would soon be returning home to Humera, the disputed territory in the northwestern tip of the country.

“More than anything I dream of peace. With it, I can get back to my home. I could do anything,” said Tibletsi. “Hope of returning home is what is keeping us going.”

Heartbreakingly, this hope might be misplaced. Gebrehiwot Gebre-Egziabher (PhD), head of the Tigray Disaster Risk Management Commission, told The Reporter plans to return IDPs to their homes are just that – plans.

“There are no operations currently going on that will enable displaced people to get back to their homes,” he said. “Both the Tigray Interim Administration and the federal government are echoing the same sentiments of returning these IDPs but neither the Tigray disaster and risk management bureau nor the social affairs bureau are given directions to change and implement this.”

International Organization for Migration (IOM) data shared with the Interim Administration reveals 1.5 million IDPs have returned to their homes since the Pretoria agreement was signed in November 2022.

“These people have lost their homes, they have no money, and we are not providing them with any resources to enable them to recover and rehabilitate. They have just gone back on their own,” said Gebrehiwot.

However, there are still 1.1 million IDPs scattered in shelters around Tigray.

Most are from southern and western Tigray, as well as from areas still under Eritrean control, according to Gebrehiwot.

“We could not return 1.1 million of them to their homes. Up to 80 percent among them are from western Tigray,” he told The Reporter.

Bureau data reveals people from all nine woredas of western Tigray and six of 14 woredas in southern Tigray are currently residing at IDP shelters. IOM data indicates there are also those displaced from 52 kebeles from Border areas adjacent to Eritrea.

Most IDPs have been sheltered either in plastic encampments originally put up as temporary lodgings, or in the compounds of schools and health centers. An assessment by the regional education bureau and UNICEF found that only 40 percent of Tigray’s schools are open to students.

Some 552 schools are located in areas under the control of either Amhara forces or the Eritrean government, while another 105 are occupied by IDPs.

No way home for more than 3 million IDPs withering in camps | The Reporter | #1 Latest Ethiopian News Today

Although the war ended a year and a half ago, there are still people being forced to flee their homes. 

Data from the Tigray Labor and Social Affairs Bureau reveals a new wave of displacement has been registered in IDP shelters near Shire in recent months, as close to 60,000 people pour into a closeby camp in Endaba Guna.

More than 11,000 have been displaced from western Tigray, mostly Tselemt Woreda, over the last two months alone. More than 4,000 others fled from Ethiopia-Eritrea border areas such as Irob, Badme, and Zalambessa.

“We were hoping to return the IDPs we already had to their homes, but what we’re facing instead is a new wave of people in the centers,” said Gebrehiwot.

He told The Reporter there are no efforts being made to return any of the IDPs to their homes, and neither is there any funding to cover the undertaking even if it were to be implemented. There isn’t even enough funding to cover the cost of an assessment of how much funding would be necessary to rehabilitate IDPs, according to the Bureau chief.

The protracted suffering endured by IDPs in Tigray is due to the occupation of western and southern territories in the region by Amhara forces, according to regional officials.

Disputes over the territories of Humera, Wolkait, and Tselemt in the west, and Raya in the south, have become an increasingly contentious subject.

During discussions with representatives from Tigray a few weeks ago, the Prime Minister said the military has been instructed to take control of the territories and enable the return of IDPs.

But Ethiopia’s IDP crisis is not limited to Tigray. There are more than 3.25 million IDPs scattered across the country, according to data from the Ministry of Peace and Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC). Tigray, Oromia and Amhara host the largest IDP populations, followed by Somali, Afar, and Benishangul-Gumuz.

During an IDP-focused event that took place in Addis Ababa last week, a representative from the Amhara region said IDPs there want nothing more than for the government to help them return to their homes.

She said the federal government and humanitarian organizations provide IDPs in the region with food assistance, while regional officials claim to have allocated a 430 million birr budget for the displaced. The public has raised close to 238 million birr for IDPs in Amhara, and a further 486 quintals of food.

The Amhara regional Disaster and Risk Management Bureau states that it is utilizing these resources in shelters that are severely affected by food scarcity. The Bureau limits the time a person can shelter in an IDP camp to nine months, but most have been living there for a year or longer.

Over the last few months, the regional administration was involved in controversy following its decision to force IDPs sheltering in Debre Birhan to return to their homes in Wollega, Oromia.

Many of the IDPs relayed their fears to the media, saying they do not feel safe enough to get back and that there were no guarantees given by the Oromia regional administration to protect them in the an case of violence, which, according to them, is the reason why they fled their homes in the first place.

The Amhara Disaster and Risk Bureau has since said it has reached an agreement with Oromia regional officials to ensure safety in parts of Wollega and elsewhere. Federal officials were also part of the discussions preceding the agreement, according to a representative of the Amhara regional administration.

“We have set a common plan dividing responsibilities between ourselves. We have reached agreements on which of us will be doing what,” said the representative. 

The Amhara regional administration is tasked with providing IDP data and information, while its counterpart in Oromia is gearing up to ensure security and access to basic service provisions.

This project was initially set to include four zones in Oromia, but the plan was revised as worsening security issues in one of the zones forced officials to exclude it.

Amhara regional officials say a committee has been established among IDPs to evaluate the areas marked for return. 

So far, 1,400 IDPs from the Amhara region have been taken to settle in 13 woredas in Oromia.

“We only sent back those who believed in our efforts and the committee’s report. We have never forced anyone who is still in fear to return,” said the representative.

The Oromia Disaster and Risk Management Bureau confirmed these returnees are settled back in West Shoa, Batu, East Wollega, and West Wollega.

But Oromia has its own IDP problem to deal with as well. There are 1.5 million people displaced within the region, with the vast majority having fled their homes due to security issues.

Drought in 10 of Oromia’s lowland zones has pushed hundreds of thousands of people to flee to nearby towns and to neighboring regions.

Eshetu Dessie (Amb.), an advisor at the Ministry of Peace, admitted there are challenges in housing and feeding IDPs in temporary shelters, as well as the huge financial resources required to enable their return with a government-funded recovery and rehabilitation plan.

Eshetu told The Reporter that continued violent clashes in Oromia and Amhara threaten to undo any progress made in the return of IDPs to their homes.

“These are forced displacements,” he said. “The fighting is creating new IDPs.”

The Ministry is considering more than one option as a solution for millions of displaced around the country, according to the advisor. The first, and most straightforward, is facilitating their return to their original homes. However, the government is also considering relocating IDPs to new homes.

But continued clashes in Amhara and Oromia, as well as the territorial disputes in Tigray, mean it is unlikely IDPs will be able to return to their homes in the near future.

“We see federal and regional press releases saying 70 percent of the total displaced in Tigray will return before the year ends,” said Gebrehiwot. “But there is nothing happening on the ground. No program has been set in motion that we can set our hopes on.” 

Meanwhile, millions of people are left stranded in their camps with their hopes of ever getting back to their homes growing dimmer by the day.

“Many wearing their white caps like you have come here with promises, telling us that talking about are anguish would change our livelihoods,” said an elderly man residing in one of the camps near Mekelle. “The only thing hope has brought is the realization that no one is looking out for us.”

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