Don't forget us, say Ethiopians as last Somali convoy heads home

Aisha camp in Ethiopia is set to close as the last convoy of refugees heads home to north-western Somalia this weekend. UNHCR is working to restore the environment and encourage development projects to ease the fears of the local community, which has come to rely on services at the camp.

A Somali refugee turns for one last look at Aisha camp before boarding the bus that will take her home.   © UNHCR/B.Heger

DEGAGO, Ethiopia, May 26 (UNHCR) - Musse Abdi Jilal, a toothless village elder who claims to be 97 years old, remembers only too well what it was like in this desolate area before the UN refugee agency set up operations here to protect and care for Somali refugees.

"If we were ever sick, the closest place to get medical care was Aisha, 35 kilometres away," he says. "A donkey was the only way to get there, and it took one or two days to get to the doctor." Sometimes sick people died on the way.

Since 1989, when UNHCR opened the camp it called Aisha - in the place the locals call Degago in eastern Ethiopia - its health clinic has been serving the nomads who had lived in the area for centuries, as well as the thousands of Somali refugees they welcomed at the end of the 1980s. Musse was treated there as well.

"A couple of years ago I had an ear infection," he recalls, stroking his beard, henna-ed to a bright orange. "A doctor examined me and gave me medicine. I was happy because I got better. Not only me, but all the people from behind the hills," he adds with a sweep of his hands, "they got treated here too."

With the last convoy of Somalis set to leave Aisha camp on Saturday (May 28) to return home to Somaliland (north-western Somalia), the camp is to be closed by the end of June. The few dozen remaining Somalis - who cannot yet go home to unsafe central and southern Somalia - will be transferred to nearby Kebribeyah camp, where they will join 10,324 others. Kebribeyah is the last of nine camps set up 16 years ago to shelter Somalis who fled civil war and the overthrow of the Siad Barre regime.

One of the last UNHCR convoys to leave Aisha camp in eastern Ethiopia.  © UNHCR/B.Heger

Closure of Aisha camp "is a real milestone, very historic," says Fernando Protti, UNHCR's Deputy Representative in charge of operations in Ethiopia. "It's a great success that we have managed to help more than 600,000 Somalis go home, which is always what refugees prefer. Now, with the establishment of the transitional government for Somalia, there are hopes that the remaining few thousand can go home as well in the next few years."

But for the local community, closure of Aisha camp is no cause for celebration.

"Now the refugees are going," Musse complains. "They were assisting us. Now I wonder, what are we going to do?"

Life in Degago has always been tough. The very name is a reference to the harsh winds that whip the desert soil into huge funnels - Degago means "cuts the ear" in the local dialect. The ethnic Somali people who live here were traditionally nomads, but were hit hard by repeated droughts in the 1980s.

"This camp has been a big benefit," says another community elder, Farah Darar, about 70, who adds that even his "grand-grandfathers" lived in this region. "Our livestock died in the drought," he says. "If they (the refugees and UNHCR) had not been around, we would not have lived. We became one family. We were eating the same food and living together. We were also working to earn money from the camp."

Unlike some places in the world where residents are antagonistic to refugees, the ethnic Somalis of remote eastern Ethiopia have been hospitable, in part because of clanship ties, and in part because of the benefits UNHCR and its partners brought to a region long neglected by the national government. (As one old man puts it, "the Ethiopian government? We had almost forgotten that we are its citizens.")

"I find Aisha a special community," says Protti. "It was the refugees who put them on the map. Before the refugees arrived, almost nobody knew about their existence. The local population is perfectly aware that cash has been coming to the area because of the refugees."

So it's only natural that they are asking UNHCR for help as the services they have depended on - boreholes, health clinics and schools - close down.

Local residents are distressed at the number of trees cut down by the refugees for houses and firewood, and UNHCR has allocated $50,000 for improvement of the environment around the camp, including reforestation.

Whenever it leaves any former refugee area, UNHCR also tries to encourage development agencies to move in, but Protti admits this is a long-term project.

In one of its most unusual projects anywhere in the world, UNHCR built special dams, reservoirs and 21 km of pipeline to supply water to Kebribeyah camp and local residents in the surrounding community. The refugee agency has been frustrated in its efforts to turn this multi-million-dollar Jarar Valley water infrastructure over to the Ethiopia's Somali Regional Government.

"We are disturbed by the government's inability to take over this infrastructure," says Protti. "Significant resources risk being abandoned because of the government's incapacity to take over. Many local people will suffer and it will not be our fault."

Degago resident Musse doesn't know details of projects like the Jarar Valley, but he understands UNHCR's departure only too well. Watching the refugees pack up for one of the last convoys to Somaliland, he turns to a UNHCR official and says with deep feeling: "This is my message - don't forget us."

By Kitty McKinsey in Aisha camp, Ethiopia