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Ethiopian War-Effected Need Food As Donors Focus Elsewhere

Refugees International (Washington)
November 29, 1999

Washington - Hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians, displaced by the military confrontation between Ethiopian and Eritrean troops, face starvation if donors fail to resuscitate relief efforts in the northern Tigray Region. Donor reluctance to fund this emergency operation has resulted in the curtailment of relief programs. In October, the situation was so serious that the World Food Program was forced to temporarily suspend its cereal distribution to 272,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs).

The crisis is immediate and urgent. This November the Netherlands government committed $2.4 million for cereals for IDPs but this will fund relief only through January. There remains an urgent need for additional pledges from the international community to continue relief to the IDPs well into 2000. Some donors are now reconsidering funding relief programs in northern Tigray. Refugees International urges them to act quickly to avoid the possibility of widespread starvation next year.

Donors' inadequate response to repeated government and UN appeals for assistance has been driven by increasing impatience with the perceived reluctance of the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments to commit to the peace process. Over past months, donors have tended to fund a concurrent emergency operation to assist six million people suffering from drought and crop failure elsewhere in Ethiopia to the exclusion of those who have lost their homes and livelihood as a result of the war.

Refugees International believes that civilian victims of war should not be held hostage to politics. While war may have authored this emergency, the urgent humanitarian needs of these vulnerable populations are real and should not denied on political grounds. The IDPs and deportees, mainly women and children, have the same claim as other Ethiopians to clean water, food, shelter and education.

The problem is at best a medium term one. Experts stress that the IDPs will need relief at least through the end of 2000. In the unlikely event of a declaration of peace before the end of the year, IDPs who return home will not be able to harvest before November 2000 while those from the Badme and Zalambessa fronts will be unable to return until these areas have been cleared of mines. Since the outbreak of war in May 1998, over 300,000 Ethiopians have been displaced by the fighting, according to official statistics. Unable to return home to cultivate their fields, IDPs are feeling increasingly desperate and helpless with the onset of each planting season.

With the help of UNICEF and donors, some 170,000 IDPs now have shelter, access to water, and rudimentary schooling. Even for these, areas of crisis remain. For instance, about one quarter of the IDP population lives in temporary settlements in circumstances of hardship even greater than those who have been accommodated by local communities.

The situation of the Irob people is particularly desperate. Most of Irobland, an area in northeast Tigray, is under Eritrean occupation and inaccessible to the Relief Society of Tigray (REST), the local NGO implementing relief assistance to the IDPs. The state of Irobs now under the jurisdiction of the Eritrean military is not known but the others struggle for survival under appalling circumstances in a no-man's land. The Irob fled an Eritrean incursion into the town of Alitena and neighboring hamlets in May 1998. Since then some 7,000 have been sleeping in the open in a rocky, barren area. There are no drugs for the sick. Many of the displaced Irob are forced to draw water from points used by the Eritrean military. Their lives are endangered each journey they make.

Over the years the Irob have painstakingly terraced fields on precipitous mountainsides. They can no longer be cultivated as most are in occupied territory. The Irob's cattle have been slaughtered and their beehives destroyed. Robbed of ways to feed themselves, they rely entirely on food aid. The nearest food distribution point is a day's walk for many of the displaced. This neglected population needs urgent attention.

RI recommends:

* Urgent action by donors to fund relief programs for Ethiopian war-affected IDPs.

* The Government, the UN system, donors and local and foreign NGOs collaborate to formulate a medium-term strategy for IDPs in the event of continued conflict.

* In the second half of 2000, when nutrition levels have stabilised, where practical, food relief be distributed as food for work to give IDPs a sense of purpose and to generate modest development projects.

* Emphasis be given to assisting the most critical populations, specifically the Irob and IDPs at Abak, Enticho, Edaga Rebue and in Western Tigray.

* Non-food relief programs give priority to water and sanitation and education.

* Donors also pledge resources for blankets, clothing and medical supplies.

* Kerosene be used as the cooking fuel for IDPs to conserve scarce wood supplies.

For more information, contact Refugees International, 2639 Conn. Ave, NW, Washington, DC 20008. Phone: 202-828-0110 Fax: 202-828-0819 www:

Distributed via Africa News Online ( If this item is redistributed, published or used for broadcast, the content should not be changed and Refugees International should be credited.

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