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Ethiopia's Famine Resettlement: Hostility Grows, the Hunger Remains

July 20, 1986|BLAINE HARDEN | Washington Post

ED DAMAZIN, Sudan — An article of faith behind the Ethiopians government's famine resettlement scheme is that southwestern Ethiopia, where famine victims are sent to rebuild their lives, offers plenty of fertile, empty land.

Those who have escaped from the program, which has been temporarily suspended by Ethiopia because of international pressure, said in a refugee camp here, however, that while southwest Ethiopia is fertile, it is not empty.

According to the escapees, Ethiopians already living in the south, most of whom are members of the Oromo ethnic group, view settlers from the north as land-stealing interlopers. The settlers who left said the Oromo are not shy about showing their displeasure.

Atsbha Ambaya, 27, a northern Ethiopia farmer who was resettled in the southwest, said his new village frequently was attacked by angry, ax-carrying Oromo.

Crippled a Man

During one attack last year, Atsbha said he used his own government-provided ax to cripple an Oromo man who was trying to kill him.

"The Oromo tell the northerners to leave, and then they burn their new houses," said Kebede Mekuria, an Ethiopian defector who said that he traveled widely in southwest Ethiopia for the government's coffee and tea ministry before fleeing in January to nearby Sudan.

"The Oromo people dislike our face; they despise us, they degrade us and don't want us near them," said Mohammed Yasin, another northern Ethiopian who lived in Asosa, a southwestern resettlement center, before escaping west to Sudan.

The Oromo, who for centuries have occupied a vast area of southern Ethiopia, have been largely ignored in the international dispute created by the Ethiopian government's plan to ease famine by moving 1.5 million people from the denuded northern highlands to the verdant southwest.

Forced at Gunpoint

Most of the attention has been focused on charges by Western relief officials and escapees that northerners were forced at gunpoint to move, that their families were split up and that many were made to live in resettlement areas in concentration-camp-like conditions. Western donors have criticized Marxist Ethiopia for diverting famine-relief food aid to the resettlement program.

Reacting to its critics, the Ethiopian government put resettlement on hold earlier this year. Officials in Addis Ababa said they would discipline the "overzealous local officials" responsible for the abuses.

The government also has suspended its so-called "villagization" program, another much-criticized plan that is expected to move about 33 million people from isolated farms to nearby centralized villages over the next nine years.

The government maintains that the plan is intended to help improve social services for peasants. But international relief officials in Ethiopia have said it appears to be aimed at cutting off peasant support for antigovernment separatists.

40,000 Fled

The villages program in southeast Ethiopia, where more than 1 million people were relocated in 1985, has induced more than 40,000 Oromo people to flee the country for bordering Somalia.

In a Somali refugee camp, disgruntled Oromo have told refugee and relief officials that government soldiers forced them to move away from their farms and into villages.

In addition, refugees have told relief officials that the plan interrupted their farming and, in some cases, ruined their crops. Some refugees have reported to relief officials that government soldiers shot or raped many of those who resisted the move.

Mengistu Haile Mariam, Ethiopia's leader, has vowed to restart both programs in the fall.

Victims of Resettlement

According to relief officials and northern Ethiopians interviewed here, the Oromo also have been victimized by resettlement. A report last year by the London-based human-rights group Survival International said that "the impact of resettlement is one of the major reasons for the presence of some 15,000 Oromo" refugees in eastern Sudan.

The Oromo Liberation Front, a guerrilla force fighting the Ethiopian government, said in a recent statement that "no people whatsoever will happily accept the colonization of their homeland by total strangers."

The Oromo make up 35% to 40% of Ethiopia's 40 million people and are believed by demographers to be the country's largest ethnic group.

They were first conquered by the Ethiopian empire around the turn of the century. The Oromo are predominantly Muslim, while northern ethnic groups, including the dominant Amhara, are mostly Christian.

Unexpected Conflict

In an interview in southwestern Ethiopia last year, Simon Galore, regional chairman of Ethiopia's ruling Worker's Party and the senior government official in charge of resettlement in the area, said that he did not anticipate conflict between local Oromo and northern settlers because "there was no problem of (resettlement farmers) taking away the indigenous farmers' land."

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