The misery of the Gedeo Internally Displaced Persons came under the spotlight only after reports were released by international media outlets. Granted, the administration was busy with many outstanding issues since it came to power in April, 2018; and yet it has not faced criticism as it did with Gedeo problem, mainly for failing to manage the crisis in the area bordering Guji Zone, Oromia Regional State, and Gedeo, Southern Regional State.
The southern tip of Ethiopia with its greenish topography will probably deceive anyone who got the chance to go there, as it can mislead visitors into to thinking that life in the area is not as challenging; probably by comparison to some of the lowland areas of the country.
Indeed life in Gedeo-West Guji Zones (an intersection of Southern and Oromia Regional State) has always been simple and more or less frictionless. Hands down, these specific zones are gifted perhaps with one of the most fertile lands in Ethiopia. Coffee, the primary export commodity to the nation, is harvested as easily as the nearby forest trees; not to mention the high premium forest coffee varieties carry in the in the global commodity market. Ensete, commonly known as the Ethiopian (false) banana, widely used as staple food in many areas of Southern Ethiopia, simply grows in the backyards.
Unlike the challenging topographic features of North Ethiopia, framers in the two zones rarely use cows to plough their farm; rather they can make do with simple hand-tools since the virgin land with its soft soil is not as such difficult to farm.
Life in general and in relativity appears to be simple; and for thousands of years, people pursued what can be said to be a life of bounty and perhaps happiness. However, since last year, things started to change for the intermixed populations of the two zones: mostly inhabited by Gedeos and Guji Oromos.
Following the coming to power Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) back in April, 2018, and before the euphoria or Abiymania, as it was coined by the Economist, finally begun to settle down, it became evident that, ironically, life in Gedeo-West Guji is starting to turn upside-down.
Millions from both ethnic groups (the majority being the Gedeos) were displaced from their homes, following a communal violence which coincidentally began in the same month that Abiy swore into power.
Tamrat Gedacho, in his late 20's, who lives in Gedeb Woreda of the Gedeo Zone, was a radio operator at Ethiopian National Defense Forces for seven years. He joined the military back in 2008 and served till last year.
He was deployed to the Northern Front and served in Adwa, Rama as well as Toserna military posts. He reached to First Lieutenant Rank after serving for eight years in the military.
Life has now puts him in another path and he is now among thousands of internally displaced population in his locality. The Reporter met him in his locality in Gedeb Woreda two weeks ago.
"I left the military so that I can start my own family and help my elder poor mother," he told The Reporter. As I was hoping for a better life, I began farming after investing the meager funds I collected as I left the military.
He lives with the seven members of his family including his mother.
Just after few months into his new life and before his optimism about what lays ahead subside, a communal conflict, which he says involved armed groups in the area, left millions, including Tamrat in a difficult position.
They were forced to leave their house because of the communal violence, where he said they lost their houses and all their assets. He and his relatives were sheltered in schools, churches and hospital in nearby towns.
"Now we are left with nothing," he said. "I wish I did not leave the army so that I could skip this tragedy," said Tamrat.
The tragedy which left millions to be displaced was in fact one of the major setbacks for the much acclaimed political reform under PM Abiy's administration.
What came to be called the hidden tragedy of Gedeo, got little to no attention from the administration and the global community until recently with the exception of sporadic local media coverage, including The Reporter.
However, as is the case with a number of other issues, the misery of the Gedeo IDPs came into the spotlight only after reports from international media outlets. Granted, the administration was busy with many outstanding issues since it came to power in April, 2018; and yet it has not faced criticism as it did with Gedeo problem, mainly for failing to manage the crisis in the area bordering Guji Zone and Gedeo.
On the other hand, the government was also criticized for expressing very confident that 90 percent of all the internally displaced population in Ethiopia had returned to their original homes. In fact, this claim was challenged by the data and reports released by government own departments as well donors.
The debate regarding the response to the crisis aside, in recent months the government of Ethiopia had begun a voluntary repatriation of the IDPs in the locality in question. Here too appears to be another controversy which involves humanitarian workers and IDPs. According to testimonies The Reporter heard from humanitarian workers and IDPs, the repatriation activities might not be as voluntary as it is claimed by authorities; and that rather, in some instances, they appear to be forced.
"Some the returnee process was made involuntarily," a humanitarian worker unwilling to be named told The Reporter.
Just last week, close to 30,000 Gedeo IDPs in Yirgachefe were made to return to West Guji by mainly demolishing the camp sites they were sheltered in, according to the humanitarian workers. The Reporter couldn't independently confirm these claims.
"This is done to wash down the real problem from the media," claimed the source, citing the fact that, days before the incident, a group of journalists were on their way to the area.
In fact, he goes further in his claim to say that involuntary repatriation began since earlier in September, 2018; and despite reports, it has continued. A number of reports from Refugees International claimed that the authorities were using force to push the IDPs to their original homes.
The government is coercing people to return--this time by demolishing existing sites, specifically in Gedeo zone, and leaving IDPs with no other options, said RI Senior Advocate Mark Yarnell in his report, after traveling to southern Ethiopia, in September 2018.
"This is in no way voluntary and a major breach of basic rights," agued Yarnell. "The irony is that the Ethiopian government has been receiving international praise--deservedly so--for its increasingly progressive policies toward refugees, including promoting their right to work and access national services. But the way it's treating its own displaced citizens is veering towards the inhumane."
The Reporter has also met a number of IDPs in Gedeo who say despite improving situation in West Guji, they don't want to return.
"In our kebele there are at least 1,000 IDPs who are in need of assistance and none of them want to return to Guji," Bederu Seid, a head of Edido Kebele of Gedeo Zone told The Reporter.
"The security situation in West Guji is not still certain and people are not confident to return," he said.
Nevertheless, the narrative coming out from sources near to the administration claim that few unsavory characters both in the humanitarian efforts and the local administrations might have been behind the claims of the involuntary repatriation in the area. According to the same sources, these are people who have vested interest in the continuation of the humanitarian crisis and pouring of resources to the locality. "Some are already answering to their doings," he asserted, adding that IDPs are also routinely mislead to reflect this very view.
Nevertheless, the communal violence in the area was new to the area and there have been similar incidents before but not as big us this one.
"Gujis are our relatives we have been living for centuries," said Jegbo Gebaba, 65 who says he has never seen such a tragedy in his life time.
"I remembered an incident in 1994 but the damages were not this high; that is why I say armed groups were behind the communal conflicts," recalled Jegbo who lives in Chirku Kebele of Gedeo Zone. He said in his locality alone close two 17 people were killed.
In the conflict that featured guns and machetes, he says some were also found set on fire while in their homes. He himself lost his house, and his livestock.
The worst part is the armed group also destroyed coffee plants, and Ensets trees, he said.
This makes the IDPs to fully depend on the assistance they are getting from donors active the area. There are more than 50 NGOs active in the area where World Vision is the only NGO operating in all 13 affected Woredas of the two Zones.
People like Jegbo has now got a new house constructed by World Vision, yet there are many who are still in need of similar assistances.
Tamrat from the same Kebele, a father of 13, is now living in 3m by 4m plastic house where he say the space is too small to accommodate all his family members. He and his neighborhood are also living in similar conditions.
"The rainy season is now coming and I don't know how I can survive," he says. The Reporter has observed that some of children who are below five years of age are already sick with the flu and has a swell in their body.
"The kids are always sick and their body resistance is deteriorating as the result of malnourishment," Tamrat confirms.
In spite of the assistance from the government and many NGOs, which are still active in the area, the support is not nearly enough.
The Reporter met members of 262 households from Guji ethnic group who were displaced months ago and returned to Gedeo, Gedeb Woreda. The households who returned to their locality four weeks ago were sheltered in churches.
The assistance they are getting is limited, according to the IDPs. By the time The Reporter visited the place, a blanket was being rationed for as much as five IDPs.
Even if the food assistance is supposed to be distributed in a fixed interval of one month, it always difficult to keep up with the time schedule, a humanitarian worker in the area told The Reporter. The humanitarian worker who is also a farmer from the area is now permanently working with one of the NGOs active in the area.
Edward Brown, National Director for World Vision Ethiopia admits that the resource deployed there is still below the demand. "We have a long gap to fill."
"We still have a long way to go, he told The Reporter. "As of now shelter is a big issue because the rainy season."
Indeed as the rainy season is on its way, many feared that the crisis might be worsened.
Just weeks ago, senior officials including Prime Minister Abiy, Muferiat Kemil, minister of peace, as well as the current president of the Southern and Oromia Regional States have visited the people displaced from the area.
At the event, the government has asserted that close to 1.2 IDPs in the country including in the two zones have returned to their original home, Fana Broadcast Corporate Reported.
Muferiat also promised to IDPs in Gedeb Woreda that the government will continue its assistance particularly in rebuilding houses destroyed during the violence.