E.g., 10/04/2023
E.g., 10/04/2023
Ethiopians Who Survived the Famine: A Repatriation Success Story

Ethiopians Who Survived the Famine: A Repatriation Success Story

Twenty years ago, a great famine swept across the Sahelian region of Africa. In Ethiopia, one of the worst affected countries, three years of drought combined with civil war resulted in the deaths of an estimated one million people and the out-migration to Sudan of more than 600,000 refugees.

Efforts are underway to capitalize on images of that famine for new charity fundraising. The 1980s hit song "Do They Know It's Christmas?" was rerecorded at the end of 2004 to raise money for the victims of the emergency in Darfur, Sudan, and a variety of commemorative events are planned for 2005. Various retrospectives have considered the extent to which lessons have been learned over the last 20 years to help prevent famine from returning to the Horn of Africa.

But whatever happened to the survivors of the Great Ethiopian Famine? Few people realize that long after the television cameras grew weary of recording their plight and moved on to the next hotspot, most of those who had sought refuge in Sudan remained in the camps.

Only in 1991, after the fall of the Derg Government in Ethiopia at the hands of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, were people willing to consider returning to their country of origin. The majority of Ethiopians went home, although actual return did not begin until June 1993.

"The War Is Over, So We Can Go Home"

By the time the refugees returned to Ethiopia, most had lost their claims to land in their villages of origin in the central and eastern highlands of Tigray and Amhara Regions. Due to heavy population pressure in those areas, local governance councils had allocated to new households the land left vacant by the refugees.

Potential returnees were thus presented with the option of settling in lowland areas in the west of the country, close to the Sudan border, where they would receive small plots of land, or returning to the highlands where they would not have access to land. Not surprisingly, most chose to settle in the lowland areas of Tigray and Amhara regions.

In the area around the town of Humera in Tigray region, some 25,000 returnees were resettled between 1993 and 1995. They were given only minimal assistance from the Ethiopian government and the international community: nine months' food ration, some plastic sheeting for shelter, a box of kitchen utensils, and a few farm tools.

Each family received two hectares of land for farming and a plot of 16 x 20 meters on which to build their houses. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the government of Ethiopia expected that after the first harvest (i.e., within nine months) returnees would become self-sufficient. However, they did not spend adequate time investigating whether this actually happened.

In the months that followed, returnees set about transforming the unfamiliar place to which they had "returned" into a place that began to resemble a home. They first had to clear their farmland, which had not been farmed for at least 20 years and had become overgrown with bushes and trees.

Although many returnees had farming backgrounds, many had never grown sorghum and sesame, the main crops suitable for cultivation in their new environment. Female-headed households had to find people who were willing to clear and cultivate their land in exchange for half of the harvest. Many people received little or no harvest during the first year because they had not been able to plant on time or to adequately tend their fields.

Having been dependent upon humanitarian assistance for nearly a decade in the camps, the returnees had to adjust to the reality of living without non-governmental organization (NGO) assistance and where schools, health care services, and water supply were much more rudimentary than they had been accustomed to.

In post-war Ethiopia, the government could not afford to provide anything but the most basic level of services, and returnees were expected to adjust to living under the same conditions as those who had remained behind during the war.

Getting to Know the Place

The process of adjusting to life following repatriation was extremely difficult during the first year. Returnees sold whatever assets they had to buy enough food to survive, and lived on a precarious cliff-edge from one day to the next.

Infant and under-5 mortality rates were extremely high, and many women died in childbirth due to the lack of adequate medical facilities. People attributed the hardships to the fact that they were unfamiliar with this new place, and thus were unable to ward off the dangers they associated with "the wilderness."

In a public meeting held to discuss measures that should be taken to protect people from the threat of malaria, one man said, "We do not know this place; that is why we and our children are dying." The hazards that an unknown place presented included diseases endemic to the area (particularly malaria and leishmaniasis), possession by the Evil Eye or a host of other spirits, snake bites and attacks by wild animals, and severe food shortages that resulted from lack of familiarity with effective farming practices.

Over time and through constant interaction with their environment through daily labor, travel, and the forging of new social networks with neighbors, returnees came to "know the place" better. They located sources of medicinal herbs for fighting off disease, became more adept at growing and marketing their crops, and found the best sources of grazing land and water during the dry season.

Social networks within the community were strengthened; neighbors and kin helped each other to build their houses, plow their fields, and cut firewood. In some cases, fictive kinship relations were created between people who were either distantly or completely unrelated: a distant cousin might come to be thought of as a brother or uncle; a woman who had originated from the same village in Tigray could, because she shared the same geographic heritage and shared what little she had in the returnee settlement, come to be considered a sister.

These newly defined relationships helped people to share resources and to help each other out during times of difficulty.

Creating a New Code of Good Citizenship

In the process of creating a new community, all social rules and hierarchies were open to negotiation. Many returnees who were young adults had come of age while living in the refugee camps. They had been organized by refugee camp administrators and political cadres, and had never lived under a civilian administration. Redefining rules of social behavior involved developing a new code of good citizenship.

Good citizens were defined as those who participated in public works projects (digging water pipelines, constructing buildings for the local administrative offices, etc.), and served in the local militia or governing council (known as the baito). People creatively sought ways of demonstrating their worth as good citizens, serving the church or mosque and volunteering at the clinic or for the women's association.

The hope was that if they were considered to be citizens in good standing, they would be eligible to receive better plots of land in the next round of allocation, or to receive any food aid that might be distributed in the village.

During the 1995 elections, several individuals who were seriously ill and bed-ridden managed to get themselves to the polling stations to vote. They explained that if they did not, they were afraid that they might lose their land. Although it was not clear whether they had actually been threatened with loss of land, the perception was clearly strong enough to get them to cast their vote.

Are We Home Yet?

Twelve years after having repatriated to Ethiopia, do returnees consider themselves to be "home"? Over the years they have steadily become more secure in their new surroundings. Most people have been able to become self-sufficient through their farming and occasional waged labor on the large commercial farms in the area.

They have learned to exploit the trade opportunities made possible by Humera's advantageous position close to the borders of Sudan and Eritrea (the latter until 1998, when war broke out between Ethiopia and its northern neighbor; the Ethio-Eritrean border remains closed now). Yet they have done this on their own, with virtually no assistance from the government or the international community.

Whether the returnees consider themselves home depends on who one talks to. Elderly people tend to feel that they will remain displaced until they return to the place they were born; they hope to die and be buried among the relatives and friends they knew before they went to Sudan.

Younger adults have a more economically pragmatic attitude. They see Humera as offering economic potential that the degraded and overcrowded highlands cannot provide to their families, and are content to remain in this area for the rest of their lives. Children are perhaps the most flexible, having no memory of life in the Tigrayan highlands, or even of the refugee camps in Sudan where they were born.

Despite this, returnees' notion of home has come to take on a multi-sited nature. Rather than thinking of the returnee settlement or the birthplace as the one true home, many returnees consider themselves to belong to both places. Their identity is derived from their heritage in the highlands (many people continue to live amongst neighbors whose families come from the same part of Tigray) and from their adopted lowland residence.

Lessons Learned

Fate seems to have its own cruel way of celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Great Ethiopian Famine. This year, an estimated 8.3 million people will need food aid. People are leaving their houses again, though they are moving to areas inside Ethiopia rather than departing the country.

To prevent "disordered" migration, the government of Ethiopia has embarked on an ambitious program of resettlement within the country, moving people from the highlands to areas close to the returnee settlements discussed here. Their model of providing assistance closely resembles that used to resettle returning refugees.

Many of the same difficulties that returning refugees first experienced are now being encountered by those being resettled: high rates of mortality and morbidity, extreme food shortages, and increased destitution.

The longitudinal research described here that has been conducted in the returnee settlements around Humera over the past 12 years has yielded several lessons that can guide repatriation and resettlement operations not only in Ethiopia now, but in other places where these "migration solutions" are being promoted:

  • Prior to undertaking repatriation or resettlement, a socio-economic assessment should be done of conditions in the area of potential return. The goal of integration should be to help returnees and settlers achieve the same standard of living as locals living in the area, without acting as a drain on resources that locals rely upon.
  • Regular monitoring of the integration process should be carried out jointly by UNHCR (in cases of return movements), other members of the international community, and the government of the country of origin until the objectives of integration have been met.
  • Resettling people in areas they have never lived before can be viable, but all people must be free to choose whether to live in the unfamiliar place or to return to their areas of origin, and they must be provided with adequate assistance to make integration possible.
  • Social integration cannot realistically be expected to be achieved within only one year after arrival in a returnee or resettlement site. It usually takes two to three years for returnees' and settlers' lives to stabilize. Until this happens, they remain extremely vulnerable to such shocks as drought, crop failure, epidemics, and food price fluctuations. Governments and the international community must remain vigilant to these hazards and work to minimize their impact on returnee and settler communities.
  • Returnees and settlers can be extremely creative and resilient in their responses to the challenges of post-repatriation life. However, it is essential not to take advantage of their vulnerability by exacting political allegiance or compelling them to devote more time to communal work projects than they can afford (given their other household obligations).

Standards for achieving integration following repatriation or resettlement are necessary for ensuring that people can realize sustainable and viable livelihoods.

It is equally important that governments and the international community adequately monitor and evaluate the experiences of returnees and settlers to guarantee they have the support they need to achieve social integration.

Taking responsibility for integration has not, so far, been a feature of return and resettlement programs, but it is necessary.

This article is based on Laura C. Hammond's new book This Place Will Become Home: Refugee Repatriation to Ethiopia, published by Cornell University Press (2004).