Even a huge international conference designed to draw attention to the plight of refugees in Africa (Geneva, 9-10 April 1981) was unable to answer basic questions about the nearly two million recent arrivals in Somalia. Journalists and relief workers alike cannot say who these people are, where they came from, why they left their homelands, and what plans they have for the future. News reports following the Geneva Conference have trotted out the same worn notions of "drought" and "Ethiopia-Somalia border war" as causes of refugee flight into Somalia without examining these explanations in light of the massive flow of people. Huge appropriations of money and supplies, as well as certain policy shifts, are being made in virtual ignorance of the circumstances that led to the uprooting of the world's largest group of refugees.

While accurate information does not guarantee just and viable solutions, it is certain that lasting solutions cannot be found or even recognized without such information. All will benefit when individuals and groups find out what is at the heart of the crisis of Africa.


Drought: It has become almost a cliche that refugees in the Horn of Africa are fleeing drought. No one seems to wonder why people fleeing drought should go to a desert. Simple logic tells us this is absurd. Of the periodic rainfall shortages that plague the area, the drought of 1973-1974 was far worse than the current shortage, but people did not flee to Somalia at that time.

Very few of the refugees now in Somalia come from drought-affected regions. Southern Ethiopia is mostly well-watered highland; the only arid regions are those bordering Sudan, Kenya, and Somalia, Refugees who left these arid areas did not return home after recent periods of ample rainfall.

Border War: The Ethiopia-Somalia border war probably accounts for half of the refugees. Before the war over the Ogaden (the disputed Somali-inhabited area within Ethiopia's present boundaries), the population there was between three quarters and one million. Thus even if the war had pushed every inhabitant of the area into Somalia, this would only account for one-third to one-half of the total refugees. Of course this has not happened - 95% of the refugees in the Somali camps are women and children. The few men there are elderly.

Even allowing for faulty population counts and for population increases (which are unlikely given the disease and malnutrition in the camps), the Ogaden could not have supplied all of the refugees in Somalia. Probably no more than half of the total refugees are the "ethnic Somalis" often referred to in the press.


Most of the rest are probably Oromos, who are farmers (and some pastoralists) from the fertile highlands of southern Ethiopia. These people are involved in their own guerrilla war against the Ethiopian regime; this has gone virtually unnoticed by the international community. In fact, relief workers, European filmmakers, and UN personnel all work in the camps with Somali translators and never even recognize the Oromo language being spoken around them and captured on their film.


The 18 million Oromo constitute 60% of the population of present-day Ethiopia and are the fourth largest ethnic group in all of Africa. Still, they remain unnoticed. Their independent nation was conquered by the Abyssinian Empire during the "Scramble for Africa" (during the late 1800s and early 1900s). They have remained imbedded, through unassimilated, within the boundaries of an Ambara-ruled empire ever since.

The Oromos see their subjugation at the hands of the four million Ambara as colonization. The Ambara Emperor Nemelik, with weapons from Europe, placed loyal retainers as landlords over all of the resource-rich and productive Oromo lands. These retainers were given the right to extract tribute. Haile Selassie I, with the aid of a US-supplied security apparatus, refined the system still further. The Ambara residents in Oromo regions were made the administrators of the government, court, schools, church - in short, of all services. I 1974 Haile Selassie's government was replaced by a committee formed by the military. By 1977 the committee proved to be more completely Ambara-dominated than its predecessors. Ambara landlords and administrators who replaced by a committee formed by the military. By 1977 the committee proved to be more completely Ambara-dominated than its predecessors. Ambara landlords and administrators who had been expelled or killed by Oromos were then replaced by a loyal Ambaric-speaking "cadre." The ruling elite had taken on another patron-sponsor - the USSR. The new socialist language has not blinded the Oromo to the fact that they are governed by a colonial apparatus. Now the Oromos are fighting for their independence.

There has always been resistance and unrest in the Oromo areas of Ethiopia. The recent outflow of refugees demonstrates that Dergue's attempts to find a military solution to Oromo nationalism (which they label "counter-revolutionary" or "narrow nationalist") have not been successful. Some of the specific causes of flight make sense against this background.


With increasing resistance and the spread of Oromo nationalism, the Dergue has begun to place many loyal Ambaras in the Oromo regions to support the government. These widely-touted "resettlement projects" insert colonies of Ambara in the middle of the Oromo homeland; the indigenous Oromo have been driven out, primarily to Somalia.

Where local resistance has been the strongest, and support for the Oromo Liberation Front has been the strongest, the local people have been rounded up into "protected villages" where they can be monitored. Those who resist are attacked by armed helicopters, or warrants are sent out for them and their families. Those who can join the liberation movement do so, he rest flee.


The recruitment of Oromo men to fight on the Eritrean front in the north has indirectly led to the flight of many women and children. For the first two of six recuritments in the seventies, Oromo men volunteered under the assumption that they were being armed and trained to protect their own villages. Since then, however, the able-bodied men and women in the south have actively resisted fighting the Dergue's wars in the north. Oromos who oppose the Dergues have been taken by government forces from the markets, from their fields, and from their houses at night. They do not return.

The women with children and the old people who remain are told to join large state farms. Often their cattle and tools are taken to force them to do so. Many refuse and choose to seek asylum and refuge in Somalia instead.


To make the trip across unfamiliar arid lands, the Oromo refugees hire a guide ($100-300) and a camel to carry their few possessions. Many have never seen a camel before. The trek is fraught with dangers - bandits. Ethiopian helicopters, unknown diseases, and the lack of water. Some say only half the agriculturists who start the trip make it. Still, an average of 2000 per day come.


Relief workers at the refugee camps see these people arrive with camels and wrongly assume that they are nomads. Virtually no one in the international press has talked to the people themselves.



There are several reasons why these issues have remained unmentioned despite the quantity of reporting on the refugee problems in the Horn. It is not in the interest of any government presently involved in the Horn to draw attention to the Oromos. Everyone is willing to call all of the refugees "Somali." Their reasons are various:

1) The Ethiopians do not want to admit that these people are Oromos and thus acknowledge the extent of Ethiopia's internal problems. They also do not want to draw attention to the way that they have been treating the Oromos.

2) Somalia receives international aid for the ethnic Somalis who seek refuge in Somalia. They are willing to discuss the Oromo problem if asked, and they support the Oromo Liberation Front. They will not offer unsolicited information about the Oromos, who they refer to by the patronizing name "Abbo."

3) The United States Department of State has chosen to ignore the realities of the situation, thus avoiding a direct confrontation with the USSR, which supports Ethiopia. Also, US sentiment has always supported Ethiopia; there seems to be a hope that Ethiopia will eventually "come home" to the west in one piece.

4) The USSR and Cuba support the Ambara's minority regime on the basis of the token socialism of the military men. This has led many socialists in the area to reassess the socialism of the USSR and Cuba. Cubans freed from jails and arriving last summer in the US told how they were imprisoned for refusing to fight against the oppressed nationals in the Horn.

In addition to the governments concerned, many of the social scientists and activists working in the Horn are former Peace Corps volunteers or missionaries to Ethiopia. These people were required to learn the Ambaric language to enter the country, and became part of the "Ambarization" of Oromo areas.

The Ethiopian government has become more and more bold in passing partial and false pictures off on westerners. They take visitors from humanitarian agencies, journalists, and diplomats to camps, development projects, and orphanages without providing interpreters for the local language. As recently as October 1980 Ethiopia was able to convince the United Nations Disaster Relief Organization (UNDRO) to recommend nearly US$1 billion to subsidize the resettlement and development programs which drive refugees into Somalia where the same organizations provide food and medicine to the victims. Such actions on the part of Ethiopia reveal a blatant contempt for the international community, but will probably continue until pressure builds for a hard look of the causes of the refugee problem in the Horn of Africa.


Many obstacles stand in the way of learning why people are fleeing Ethiopia. Ethiopian officials only admit journalists sympathetic to the Ethiopian "revolution" and those willing to accept the limitations of government-supplied transport, interpreters, and even interviewees. The Somalis more subtly emphasize the need to devote the limited transport and manpower available to actual relief related work rather than to time consuming interviews of refugees.

However a different picture emerges from interviews with refugees in Somalia (who are not necessarily Somali refugees), from "Ethiopian" prisoners of war taken in Eritrea and Lugraz, from Oromos and Somalis in the US and Europe who keep in touch with their home, and from a few missionaries. The image is one of a broad-based resistance movement ethnically/nationally based which must be considered in any investigation into the causes of refugee flight in the Horn of Africa. Resistance and refugees, in the Oromo as well as Somali case, must be viewed as two sides of the same coin. The sooner the international community allows the refugees a greater voice, the sooner their dramatic flight from southern Ethiopia's agricultural regions to Somalia's deserts will make sense.

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