Horn of Africa Update
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata will travel to Sudan's Kassala province on Monday where UNHCR is helping more than 73,000 refugees who fled the latest round of fighting between Eritrea and Ethiopia. During meeting with top Sudanese officials on the week-end, Ogata thanked Sudan for sheltering refugees and said UNHCR will continue to support this generosity." I am very grateful that Sudan has exercised its traditional hospitality," Ogata said on her arrival late Saturday in Khartoum on the first stop of a six-nation tour of Africa.
On Sunday, Ogata met with Sudan's External Relations Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail, Internal Affairs Minister Ahmed Al Aas and Commissioner of Refugees Al Aghbash.
Meanwhile, UNHCR staff reported the arrival of an estimated 800 new Eritrean refugees on Saturday in Kassala. They included some Eritrean refugees who had gone back Wednesday and Friday to Eritrea after the Eritrean military sent word that it had retaken towns the Ethiopians had occupied. The group also included 500 Eritrean soldiers who were disarmed after they crossed the frontier into Sudan near the Gergaf camp.
UNHCR has been moving Eritrean refugees at Gergaf, which is near the conflict zone in Eritrea, to Shagarab, 70 km farther inside Sudan. Over three days, UNHCR has moved 2,600 from Gergaf, which originally had around 11,000 refugees.
Four additional members of the UNHCR emergency team arrived over the weekend, doubling the size of the UNHCR operation. With the new team members, UNHCR now has the capability to cover the affected Gash-Barka zone in the western lowlands region. More staff are due to arrive in the coming days.
A UNHCR field team will leave for Tesseney on Monday in order to establish an office and field presence in the Gash-Barka region. The UNHCR team will also be addressing the urgent needs identified during an initial mission last Thursday at the Debat near Keren which according to the Eritrean government hosts 50,000 persons displaced from the Tesseney, Barentu and Akurdet areas. A UNHCR mission to the site last Thursday found many people without shelter, adequate water supplies and proper sanitation, with the entire area in danger of being cut-off once the rains arrive.
The UNHCR airlift commenced on Friday with the delivery of 25,000 blankets from Copenhagen. The airlift is continuing with a second UNHCR-chartered Airbus 300 due to arrive on Tuesday loaded with jerry cans, blankets and water pumps. The delivery of water pumps will help boost water delivery throughout the affected regions, where fights have broken out among the displaced people over water.
On Friday, 16 June, UNHCR is sending two IL76 aircraft to Asmara loaded with heavy vehicles including water tankers, tipper trucks, tents, and other supplies from stocks in Kosovo and Albania. Another IL76 is scheduled to arrive on Saturday, 17 June. A total of 12 heavy vehicles and six light vehicles are being airlifted to Eritrea to relieve urgent needs in the Gash-Barka zone.
Soap purchased locally by UNHCR is already being distributed by the Eritrean Relief and Refugee Commission (ERREC). Distribution of locally purchased kitchen sets and sanitary napkins will begin on Monday targeting the displaced persons returning to the western lowlands region.
UNHCR staff who travelled to western Eritrea on the weekend report movements of refugees coming back from Sudan in the Tesseney and Talattasher regions. The internally displaced are also moving towards their home areas throughout the region. People are travelling by whatever means possible - tractor, donkey cart and on foot.
Some single women encountered along the hot and dusty roads said that they were searching for their children and other family members. Two mothers originally from Guluj who were found by UNHCR in a dry riverbed near Ghirmayka were looking for five children who had become separated.
In some towns that are comparatively far from the front lines (like Ghirmayka), the population is still double its original size due to the influx of displaced people. Other communities are like "ghost towns," UNHCR staff say, as very few people have come back. While a few thousand people have returned to Tesseney, its population is still a fraction of the usual 39,000.
The town of Talattasher is seeing a constant stream of people coming back from Sudan. A score of people were counted passing an observation point every five minutes, returning from the direction of Sudan. The Eritrean government is well organised with trucks, and the returnees wait in organised lines to be collected by the trucks that are taking them from just inside the Eritrean border towards their home areas.
Markets in some areas are virtually empty and many shops have been looted, as have some hospitals, schools and other public and private facilities in the region. Stocks are starting to reappear in front of some shops, however. No land mines or booby traps were noted in Tesseney or Barentu, where the Eritrean army has carried out de-mining activities, but mined areas have been reported further south, where the front lines are reportedly still active at Guluj.
UNHCR's office in Tesseney was looted of its radio equipment and a wall was blown out. The UNHCR reception centre in Tesseney had been emptied of all its furniture, which had been left in piles in front of the facility, but apparently the looters had not been able to remove the piles of furniture before the fighting intensified earlier last week. Tesseney does have electricity, however. In Barentu, UNHCR's office building was undamaged although the main hotel next door had been destroyed. Barentu currently lacks electricity.