Despite political changes in Ethiopia, refugees in Kenya still a matter of “great concern”

Despite political changes in Ethiopia, refugees in Kenya still a matter of “great concern”

Ethiopian refugees queue for medical attention in a Kenya Red Cross medical tent in Somare Camp in Moyale, Kenya on 23 March 2018.

(Anthony Langat)

Abdia Golicha, 35, sits on a plaited mat spread on the floor of her small makeshift tent. Her body faces the entrance, her eyes fixed lazily on the horizon. Her meagre belongings – some bedding, a few utensils and a couple of items of clothing – are gathered in a small heap by her side. She has a view of the hills that obscure the Ethiopian side of Moyale, a market town on the Ethiopian-Kenyan border that is split between the two countries, near to where Abdia comes from.

Arbale, specifically, is where Abdia lived with her husband and her only son, who is 15. She was nine months pregnant, due at any moment, though still working as a market trader, on the day that her life changed forever.

It was around noon on 9 March 2018. Abdia was sitting in Shawa-Bare market selling the milk she had bought from local farmers. “I heard the sound of gunfire and I fell unconscious. I do not remember anything else after that,” she says, speaking through an interpreter, of the incident that killed over 10 people and injured many others.

Those shooting at civilians were Ethiopian military personnel, and as CNN reported, they were acting on incorrect intelligence that armed militias from the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) were operating in the town of just over 25,000 people.

As a result, more than 10,000 people are said to have sought asylum on the Kenyan side of Moyale since last month, although nearly half have returned to Ethiopia following the appointment of a new Prime Minister, Dr. Abiy Ahmed Ali, on 2 April.

But today the town is still under pressure due to the lack of resources to accommodate the refugees. Talaso Chucha of the Kenya Red Cross told Equal Times on 10 April that close to 800 people remain in what was once the main camp in Somare, while another 4,000 refugees are living in two other camps near the border. At the time of publication, new asylum seekers were still arriving in Kenyan Moyale every day.

The killings came almost a month after a state of emergency was announced in Ethiopia on 16 February, the day after the former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned following several years of political unrest and resulting human rights violations. Ethiopia’s two biggest ethnic groups – the Oromo and Amhara – make up two-thirds of the population but feel marginalised economically and politically by the Tigrayan minority that dominates the government.

Tens of thousands of people have been arrested since anti-government protests began in 2015, and hundreds have been killed in protests in the Oromia and Amhara regions. Despite recent moves to quell the tensions by releasing nearly 6,000 political prisoners, including high-profile figures such as prominent journalist Eskinder Nega, opposition politician Andualem Arage and Bekele Gerba of the Oromo Federalist Congress, the former prime minister said that he hoped that his resignation would be “vital in the bid to carry out reforms that would lead to sustainable peace and democracy”.

Mostly women and children

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 80 per cent of those who fled to Kenya are women and children. In the first days, this included over 600 expectant mothers. Abdia was one of them. She was brought across the border into Kenyan Moyale by her neighbours, still unconscious, and taken directly to Moyale Sub–County Hospital where she regained consciousness late in the afternoon.

As Abdia went into labour she was in extreme pain but hoped against hope that she would deliver a healthy baby, as she had previously had four miscarriages. Unfortunately, she had a stillbirth.

“It was sad and painful to lose my child again. I was not strong but all I could do was to cry,” she tells Equal Times. Abdia says she blames the Ethiopian military for the loss of her child. Had she not fallen unconscious as the soldiers fired live ammunition at the crowd, she believes that her baby would still be alive today.

Many other Ethiopians joined Abdia in crossing the border and directly into hospitals in Kenya on the day of the attack and in days that followed. While the response of the aid agencies and government was swift, it is still evident that they are struggling to deal with the influx of refugees, particularly those that require medical attention.

Dr. Ibrahim Mohamed, the medical superintendent for Moyale Sub-County Hospital, tells Equal Times:

“The traffic of patients into our facility has been overwhelming. We are taking care of the refugees, we are attending to them together with our patients, but it is just overwhelming.”

During the first days when the refugees were crossing into Kenya, UNHCR Kenya spokesperson Yvonne Ndege told Equal Times that their needs were significant. “Security concerns have also been expressed by the asylum seekers, of whom the majority are residing in makeshift campsites situated quite close to the border. The lack of water and the overall poor sanitation situation is reason for great concern regarding a possible outbreak of cholera,” she said.

For Abdia, giving birth to a stillborn baby was not the end of her problems. She has since developed an uterovesical fistula, a rare condition caused by complications during a caesarean delivery resulting in urinary incontinence.

Feeling deeply ashamed of her new condition, Abdia now spends most of her time sitting on a mat in her tent with her eyes fixed on the hills of home. She doesn’t walk around much or mix with the others because she is embarrassed by her own smell. For Abdia, the greatest peace will be found in things returning to normal. “I just want to get well. Even if I have to stay here longer.”

Currently, things are calm just across the border but Abdia and thousands of her compatriots have no plans of going back just yet. Indeed, any further outbreaks of violence could lead to a truly dire situation in the Kenyan camps, which are not adequately prepared or funded for a larger refugee crisis. For the moment, Abdia is waiting for healing in her body and healing in her home country before she makes the journey back.