Refugees Flee Ethiopian Collectivization


Refugees from the highlands of Ethiopia's eastern Hararghe Province have been arriving in Somalia's Tug Wajale camp since December 1985. They have described in detail the forced relocation into central villages and the registration and subsequent nationalization of their animals, crops and equipment which precipitated their flight. Their reports indicate that Ethiopian authorities began their policy of forced villagization more than a year ago in some areas. The refugees in Tug Wajale insist that villagization is a cover for the nationalization of all individual assets and the collectivization of production. Those interviewed reported that their animals and crops had been registered and that they had been told by local officials that these items belonged to the state; they could not be sold, traded or taken from the area. Because so many residents opposed villagization, government officials were able to accomplish it only with considerable coercion.

The Refugees in Tug Wajale

At the end of April 1986 there were approximately 45,000 refugees living in Tug Wajale camp. The refugees in the camp fled their homelands because of the massive human rights violations associated with forced relocation and the confiscation of their property. None of those interviewed in the camp were drought victims.

About 70 percent of the refugees were Oromo; the remainder were Somalis. Many were bilingual in both Oromo and Somali; 80 percent spoke Oromo and 50 percent spoke Somali.

The average family size of those interviewed was six people, and about 60 percent of all heads of households were women. At the time of their arrival, only about half of the refugees were accompanied by their spouses and about half of their children. At the time of the interviews, however, only about one-third of all spouses and children had yet to arrive in camp.

Prior to villagization those interviewed were extremely successful peasant farmers. More than 97 percent were farmers in Ethiopia; half used gravity-fed irrigation. They laughed at the suggestion that they might be famine victims. Those interviewed produced more than 670 kg of cereals, grains and beans, per person, for extended families which were twice as large as their nuclear families. While this level of production is more than three times basic subsistence needs, those interviewed insisted that these crops were not their primary food staple. Instead, they relied on a variety of yam, which was grown on more than three hectares and was interplanted with other crops.

Most of the respondents grew chat, potatoes and red onions as cash crops, and half-produced coffee and groundnuts. Last year the average earnings from chat sales alone were more than E$4,000 (US$2,000) per family. Some farmers grew white onions, cabbage, leeks, carrots, beets, fruit or sugar cane.

More than 92 percent of those interviewed owned livestock. On average, they had five oxen, 13 cows, 31 sheep, 25 goats and three donkeys. Most said that their herds had declined during the past five years. Half said that some animals had died as a result of disease or drought. More than 60 percent had sold animals during the same period, primarily to pay taxes and contributions. More than half reported that the militia or local officials had stolen their oxen and cows - on average two animals per year - during the past five years.

When asked why production had declined in their area during the last five years, 25 percent said that drought had reduced production but that it had not caused significant declines. Some 30 percent reported that uncompensated, forced labor, required by government or local officials, did not allow them enough time to cultivate their fields. Most said their herds had decreased because they were forced to sell animals to pay taxes and contributions and because local officials stole their animals.

Why the Refugees Left Ethiopia

When asked "Why did you leave your home?" respondents listed several factors. More than half said that they left because their homes had been destroyed. Forty percent reported that they left because of religious persecution; an equal number cited forced labor as the cause. Some 35 percent reported that they left because their animals had been confiscated while 27 percent reported the confiscation of crops as a factor. One-quarter reported they left because the government was creating socialism; 12 percent reported leaving because of villagization. A number of people cited high taxes or contributions, or both, as a cause. Others said the militia's raping of women and taking of young children from their parents were major factors. One-third reported that "they [the Amharas, the ethnic group that dominates the government] are destroying our culture."

When asked about events during the past few years that had influenced their decision to leave, more than three-quarters of those interviewed reported that family members had been beaten or imprisoned, and that they had had food and farming equipment stolen by the militia. More than three-quarters also said that family members had been conscripted into the militia/army. More than half reported that members of their family had been killed and animals stolen by the militia. More than half also said that family members had been held until "voluntary" contributions to local officials had been made, and part of their crops had been burned by the militia at least once between 1983 and 1986. Some 47 percent reported that women in their family had been raped by the militia in the last 18 months, and 45 percent reported that fodder for their animals had been burned by the militia at least once between 1983 and 1986.

When asked directly if religious persecution occurred in their area, two-thirds reported that it did. Examples they cited include mosques destroyed; sheiks (religious leaders) beaten, imprisoned or even executed; Korans destroyed; Koranic schools closed; and prayer forbidden.

Three-quarters of those interviewed reported that ethnic persecution occurred in their villages. Responses to this question included:

* They are trying to destroy the culture of the Oromos.

* Those who don't speak Amharic are doomed.

* Those [the elders] who know the history of the Oromos are killed.

* They attack us because we are Oromo. If I said I was an Oromo I would be hanged. If I said I am an Amhara, nothing would happen to me.

The Process of Villagization

Refugees from throughout Hararghe Province were consistent in the general scenario they constructed of the villagization process. The first step in the process is the arrest and imprisonment of the sheiks. Shortly afterward local officials announce the creation of a new village [all are called safaratabia (resettlement site) #1, 2, etc.]. Then all livestock are registered and people are told that they cannot sell animals since they now belong to the state. During the harvest, all animals are re-registered and at the same time all crops, household goods and farm equipment are registered as well. Residents are forbidden to sell anything; everything belongs to the state. One man reported being imprisoned for trying to sell one of his goats after it had been registered so that he could pay a local tax.

In Hararghe, new villages are composed of all members of old peasant associations (the local organization to which all rural residents in government-held areas must belong) which, in that area, usually encompassed six to eight traditional villages. Some large peasant associations were divided into two new villages. New villages contain approximately 300 to 350 families.

The center of new villages is dominated by government buildings (which are often constructed with materials taken from old mosques). Local officials' houses are also in the center of town. Officials claim that schools and clinics will be built in the new towns, but none of the refugees interviewed indicated that any services existed in the new villages when they left.

Old houses were dismantled and moved to the new sites by their owners. People were told where to build their new houses. Everyone worked together; no one was allowed to cut new materials to make their houses. The homes of people who refused to dismantle them were burnt; then they had to buy building materials from friends and neighbors. Often house construction was delayed until government buildings were finished. Some people reported living in the open without any type of shelter for two or three months before being allowed to reassemble their homes.

People were required to work on the new villages from 7 or 8 a. m. until sunset, six or seven days per week. Some people who reported that their new villages were started in early 1985 complained that they were not given sufficient time to plant their crops; others, however, reported that building was halted during the planting season. More than half of those interviewed said that harvesting during 1985 was hampered as a result of the construction of new villages. Women and children, assisted by men after dark, harvested crops in some areas; in others, the local Youth Association (a required organization for all between the ages of 15 and 30) harvested and registered the crops. Some men reported that they were given five days per month to complete their harvest.

The Implications of Villagization

Refugees consistently outlined the government's intent in the villagization program.

* Villagization is a step toward establishing socialism and taking over everything. The villages allow the government to control the people. There are no fences around the villages, but the militia will patrol them.

* Villagization has been undertaken to control the OLF (Oromo Liberation Front), make it easier to control the people and form producers' cooperatives.

There will be a school in the new village, but only Amharic will be taught. Oromo culture will be destroyed. If I had said any of this in Ethiopia I would have been killed.

* Our animals were registered in October 1985, just after construction on the new village site had begun. Later the animals and the crops were taken. We left before seeing what else would happen.

Many of those interviewed indicated that during the past few years producers' cooperatives had been introduced in areas previously within their peasant association; people also reported that they had lost some of their land to the peasant association's communally cultivated plots where the produce went to the state. They received no compensation for this work. As another indication of the trends toward collectivization, refugees reported that recently they had been instructed to work in groups of 10, not just in building the new villages but also in harvesting the crops.

What bothered the refugees as much as the collectivization of production was the loss of control over their food supply. Refugees insisted that they had been told not to give milk to their children; since all cows belong to the state, it is the state's responsibility to feed the children. This feeding system, however, had yet to be established in any of the refugees' villages. People were also told that, the government would distribute rations - their own confiscated produce - to them. The rations, 500 grams per day, would be, the farmers feared, only the inferior grain that was not acceptable to those in the army or living in cities. For farmers who have traditionally produced huge food surpluses and maintained tremendous variety in their diets, government control over their food was unacceptable. As one man said, "I could live on milk and honey if I wanted. Why should I eat ground corn?"

The highland areas of Hararghe are some of the most productive in all of Ethiopia. It is this fact, no doubt, that has led the government to create producers' cooperatives in its attempt to take over production in this area.

Likewise the government's need for foreign exchange has had a similar effect. With the exception of Western humanitarian assistance, coffee already generates more hard currency than any other item produced in the country. The Hararghe region is one of the major coffee-producing areas in Ethiopia, and many of the new village sites appear to be chosen because of their proximity to actual or potential coffee areas. Farmers in the Hararghe district of Habro, for example, for the past seven years have been required to work, without compensation, on state coffee farms three to four days per week. They plant about 10,000 new trees per year and have planted over 77,000 trees on some farms.

Social control is certainly another function of the new villages. This is accomplished not only as a result of the ease with which more densely settled areas can be watched, but also because people can be forbidden to travel through the vacated countryside, i.e., it can become, in effect, a free-fire zone. The proximity of new villages to areas where the Oromo Liberation Front has been active should not be overlooked.

People reported, for example, that they were allowed to travel freely to their old farms only until the new village was completed. New villages are located near roads, and usually road building - with forced, unpaid labor - either connects new villages with other cities or areas where new villages are to be built. Roads are essential to the rapid deployment of troops, and each new village is both an outpost of expansion into areas that are being brought under total government control and a springboard for further penetration of remote regions.

Security in the new villages is organized by the militia. While formerly recruited from their own villages, militia are now recruited in one area and deployed in another. As a result, there are no social ties between militia and villagers. This alone probably accounts for the fact that 80 percent of all those interviewed reported that the systematic rape of women in their village by the militia had become a major problem in the past 18 months. One woman reported that in her village the standard rape ratio was five militia per woman and that the militia were "turned loose" twice a week.

New villages also mix local cultures - Oromo and Somali in these cases - with the intention of destroying each. Those interviewed said that Amharic language and culture were to be imposed, and that this would be particularly easy once schools were set up in the villages and all the children were required to attend.

It is possible that villagization might free enough land to enable the government to resettle a number of Amharic-speaking people into the area who would certainly accelerate the assimilation process. Because of these people's dependence on the state, they could also be counted on as a reliable surveillance and monitoring presence.

Finally, the refugees were in overwhelming agreement that the creation of new villages is a direct attack on Islam. Old mosques are destroyed and their materials desecrated when used to construct state buildings and latrines. None of those interviewed said that any mosques were built or under construction in their new villages. Those who fled from their homes were told that socialism is their religion and that there is no room for any other. They would have to work more now and not pray.


The scenario of villagization in Hararghe Province depicted by the refugees in Somalia contrasts greatly with the one reported by Western diplomats, humanitarian agency personnel and journalists. There is no reason to assume that any of these sources are misrepresenting what they have experienced or seen. The main question, then, is to determine which picture, either of the villagization process or of the government's intent, more accurately depicts what is happening throughout the countryside. While officials rarely listen to refugees and all too easily dismiss their reports as biased, the testimony of people who only want to return to their homes has in the past proved to be accurate. Unlike nonresident observers or investigators, who gain an understanding of the process second hand, refugees have experienced the process. They can talk about it, as they say, because they are now outside of the country. In the final analysis, however, if what these refugees report is mostly true even for Hararghe Province alone, the government is deliberately destroying a surplus-producing agricultural economy. Who will be asked to feed those who are no longer allowed to feed themselves?

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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