Driven to Ethiopia by hunger and war

Hadija Isaac ABDU toys with the plastic syringe that she uses to feed her severely malnourished three-year-old son at the MSF stabilisation centre in Malkadida refugee camp. “We are farmers; we grow corn and sorghum. We had cows. The crops failed because of the drought and when the cattle died we decided to leave. We had to walk for seven days without food to get here. The only food we ate was what people gave us along the way.”  

Yussuf Jemale HASSAN, a 51-year-old with six children, came to the Ethiopian refugee camps from Garbahaarey. “We used to have forty camels and 150 goats. When I left there were only two camels and five goats. I have no way to earn a living now, no place of peace to which I can return. All that is left of Somalia are landmines, war and hunger.”

Hadija Isaac and Yussuf Jemale’s experiences are typical of the 118,000 Somali refugees in camps in the Ethiopian region of Liben. Almost half have arrived in the last two months as they flee hunger, drought and a war that has raged for two decades. The massive influx of refugees has hugely overstretched the Liben camps, which were initially built to shelter 45,000 people. Soaring malnutrition is compounding matters: according to the routine checks that MSF carries out on new arrivals, half of all children under five who reach the Ethiopian camps in Liben are malnourished. In July alone, two hundred children were admitted to stabilization centres for children with severe malnutrition and complications.

The families waited as long as they could for the rains to come. These semi-nomadic shepherds and smallholder farmers had never envisaged having to leave their country. It was the last resort when the rain never came, the livestock died and the crops failed, in a country ravaged by twenty years of conflict. By the time they leave Somalia, many children were already malnourished and during the long walk to cross the border – for some up to twenty days – their health deteriorated even further.

“In June they were arriving by the thousand (2,800 on 28 June alone). I was horrified by the case of one grandmother who made it here with three small grandchildren. All three died no sooner than they’d arrived. It was too late, nothing could be done for them,” recalls Kadir Abdi AHMED, an MSF nurse at the pre-registration camp, the first settlement that refugees come to as soon as they cross the border. Abdi is part of a team that assesses the state of new arrivals and immediately transfers the most serious cases to health centres.

“We sold our last few goats to buy some food for the journey,” explains 30-year-old Amina DAKEY, recalling the exorbitant prices of corn and other basic commodities on Somali markets. From Dinsor it took her family ten days to complete the walk. Their food ran out and since reaching Liben, one of her little ones has been admitted to one of the malnutrition programmes run by MSF at the five camps. More than ten thousand children are currently in the programmes. The medical organisation also distributes food (such as flour and oil) to families so that the therapeutic food for the malnourished child is not shared out with the other siblings, all of whom are hungry.

MSF has launched a measles vaccination campaign at the camps to cover 20,000 children under the age of fifteen in four days. Measles is a highly infectious disease that can be lethal when coupled with high levels of malnutrition. Overcrowding in these camps (until two more are opened, they are at over double their capacity) heightens the risk of epidemics. With food and water shortages and a lack of sanitation, many of the children are admitted for persistent diarrhea and respiratory infections.

MSF has scaled up its operating capacity at the camps. It now has some 700 local and 40 international workers and has sent 855 tonnes of therapeutic food, conventional food and medical material. It is also enlarging the health centres at the camps, both those that have been running for longer (Bokolmayo, Malkadida, transit), and those that have recently been set up (Kobe and pre-registration).

The thousands of people who have left for Ethiopia in the last few months have done so for two main reasons: drought and hunger. But the reason why most refugees cannot go back to their home country is another: war. “No, I don’t think we can go back to Somalia. I don’t think we can find what we need there in the near future: peace and something to eat,” says Hadija. She smiles weakly – her son is getting better and, “I hope to meet up with my mother. She stayed at home with our last two cows but decided to set off when they died also. She’s brought the hides to sleep on. At the moment she’s in the transit camp so I hope we’ll be able to see each other soon. I can’t envisage going back to Somalia.”