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The mass exodus of Ethiopian Somalis to Sitti Zone

People in Sitti Zone displaced by conflict, drought, and flooding are not receiving enough aid.

While the entire Somali region is facing a multitude of challenges, from periods of drought and flooding to violent conflict, the consequences have been particularly dire in Sitti Zone.

Given its location, Sitti is a vital artery to export and import goods. The zone, formerly known as Shinile, is located in the northwestern part of Somali region. It is bordered to the south by Dire Dawa and Oromia, to the west by the Afar, to the north by Djibouti, and to the east by Somaliland. 

Human suffering in the zone has included numerous massacres of civilians. As reported on SIMA TV in July 2022, more than 150,000 people have been displaced from the border between Afar and Somali regions into Sitti over the last three years.

Severe drought affecting the region has been accompanied by violent clashes with forces from Afar, which have been recurrent since 2019. Owing to these crises, the zone is currently experiencing a catastrophe.

Border conflicts

Border demarcation issues between the Somali region and Afar, its western neighbor, have deep historical roots. More recently, they have resulted in frequent eruptions of large-scale violence. Territorial contestations between the two neighboring kilils mainly concern the administration of a few villages and kebeles along the Djibouti-Addis Abeba highway.

When clashes occur, reciprocal accusations are made between Afar and Somali actors. Civilian residents are routinely targeted, as several incidents—like the calamitous 24 July 2021 raid by Afar regional forces on the town of Garba-Issa and its surroundings—indicate.

It is difficult to confirm the total number of people who have been killed over the past three years, but a local source estimates the figure to be around 1,300-1,500. The clashes are accompanied by actions targeted at dislodging residents, like burning homes, burying water wells, and raiding livestock, which lead to displacement. 

Because most residents of these areas are ethnically Somali, they have sought refuge in the adjacent Sitti zone. To get a sense of the scale of the crisis, according to an August 2021 rapid inter-agency needs assessment carried out by UN agencies, around 32,000 people were displaced to western Sitti in the aftermath of the above mentioned episode alone.

The document found that many survivors were compelled to leave their homes and have been scattered across the Sitti zone since July of last year, settling in twelve sites across the five districts of Ma’ayso, Afdam, Erer, Gablatu, and Gota-Bike. Most of the displaced were sheltered in schools, district administration buildings, and privately-owned properties, or were being hosted by friends and relatives. 

Latest carnage

Recent developments have aggravated the situation further. Amid the civil war between the Ethiopian military and Tigray’s regional government, Afar region militias have been armed with heavy weapons to help in the fight against Tigray forces. When direct confrontations were halted for months, these Afar militias deployed armaments to the disputed territories, escalating the violence to a new level.

These circumstances likely explain the 11 August attack by Afar fighters on Undufo, two-dozen smaller disputed villages, and adjacent nomadic communities. This major offensive was again characterized by killings of civilians, massive destruction, theft, and displacement of local residents.

Unfortunately, reliable information on the episode is hard to come by, because—like in similar previous episodes—the Ethiopian government has barred independent media and humanitarian personnel from accessing the area.

Owing to professional engagements, I was able to access the area and carry out interviews with survivors of this latest flare up in violence. Respondents estimated that hundreds have been killed—their bodies often left on the streets—and that sexual violence was widespread. In the aftermath of the massacre and the plundering, survivors were left without shelter, domestic animals, and food, which explains why a massive Somali exodus from Zone 3 of Afar has ensued.

While all the testimonies I heard were shocking, two of them illustrate particularly well the trauma these internally displaced persons (IDPs) have been going through.

Aisha Awale, who came to Sitti from Dalahelay, recalled, “I endured a nightmare, believing that I would soon be taken away and put to death … Now almost every night those memories haunt my dreams. The trauma wakes me up now and then, the aftermath is even more painful. It took me a whole night to walk away, slowly, putting my hand on my bleeding shoulder, holding my breath, and waiting for another bullet to pass through my stomach.”

“I am 72 years old, I was born here, [me and my family] didn’t have any other country to go to,” stated Hawa Wabari, who fled from Undufo town. “Almost all of my family and my neighbors were killed, we could not bury our people, who were killed in front of us … I have never seen such a disaster in my life, we are finished … These two children are all what’s left of my family of eight … Can’t the world see us? We are human beings, we need protection,” she recounted.

Now, having reached a relatively safe area, these people are in dire need of humanitarian aid. Regrettably, despite the fact that IDPs in Sitti have been hit hard by a triple burden which poses a threat to their existence—conflict, drought, and flooding—they are also the most neglected population. 

The latter risk only emerged over the past few weeks, during which heavy rainfall—that cannot be absorbed by the dry soil bare of any vegetation—inundated the area and blocked aid delivery.

Amid the recent waves of conflict that produced massive displacement, extreme weather patterns have impeded humanitarian access in western Sitti. In addition, most humanitarian agencies are focused on delivering relief in Tigray.

Drought and indifference

According to the regional government’s Drought Response Plan, more than three million people in the Somali Region have been affected by what has been referred to as “the worst drought in 40 years.” This phenomenon has led to further displacement, with pastoralist communities hit the hardest. 

Displacement has had a terrible impact on people’s physical, psychological, and social well-being. Particularly at risk are children, mothers, the elderly, and other vulnerable groups who have either been forced to evacuate or have lost their homes, families, and livestock.

Faced with these challenges, IDPs are suffering from malnutrition and the spread of diseases. As the drought has strained the resources of Sitti residents as well, making it harder for them to support the displaced, the task of helping falls squarely on regional and federal authorities, as well as on international organizations. Unfortunately, these actors have not been up to the task.

In February 2022, the Congress for Somali Cause (CSC) and Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) criticized the regional government’s reaction to the drought, jointly stating: “The current circumstances in the region, which leave millions to face debilitating hunger and malnutrition, are not being addressed by the government which is not acting appropriately.”

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Ever since, the situation in Sitti has only worsened. In response, Sitti’s former governor, Muhammad Mahmoud Hadi, stepped down from his post three months ago. Muhammad cited the regional government’s continued failure to address the zone’s crises as a prime reason for his resignation.

Dr. Abdi Mohamed Bulbal, assistant professor at Jigjiga University and an international humanitarian aid worker, told Karamara TV on 13 July 2022: “The IDPs in Sitti zone have been badly neglected. The Somali regional state aid agencies have been downsizing and hiding the catastrophic humanitarian condition these people find themselves in.”

He further elaborated, stating, “This deliberate act of negligence [not enabling full access to assist those in need] is to be considered a crime of using hunger as a weapon to exterminate targeted people.”

Dire situation

The numbers related to this crisis are heart wrenching. According to a 12 June 2022 internal assessment by Sitti’s zonal health bureau, during the first half of 2022, nearly 21,340 cases of severe acute watery diarrhea and suspected cholera have been registered, with 190 associated deaths. Nearly one third of the reported cases are children under the age of five.

“We fear that the number of cholera cases will surge with the arrival of the rainy season as basic services including water systems are not available at all,” a zonal official said.

“Our teams on the ground are working day and night to save lives but we face obstacles including lack of resources, poor basic infrastructure, and poor communication,” the official added. “[We have] no fuel, no medicine, and no nutritional therapy supplements. IDPs are in a tough situation. Several NGOs operating in Sitti zone are moving back and forth, conducting endless assessments instead of providing life-saving interventions.”

“We have issued several appeals by asking NGOs and UN agencies to launch urgent assistance; unfortunately, no one paid proper attention … Regional government support is negligible. To this date, no proportionate action has been taken by the regional administration to avert the looming famine; they have been downplaying our repeated calls,” the Sitti official said.

The displaced people have received insufficient amounts of food aid, which they most urgently need. As the internal assessment quoted above indicates, the situation is exacerbated by routine consumption of contaminated water, poor sewerage management, and frequent displacement, as people keep fleeing escalating violence in western Sitti zone. 

Some of them are in hard to reach areas with poor basic services such as water, sanitation, and hygiene. Other issues include poor nutrition, lack of shelter, insecurity, and lack of access to health services.

These deprivations result in acute malnutrition, facilitate the spread of diarrhea, and lead to outbreaks of preventable diseases like measles. A high mortality rate of children has been reported and, according to a senior officer in the local administration, “international NGOs and the regional state have no established response yet.”

“Currently, we are focusing on 24 priority centers in Sitti, where people are in an extremely dire situation. Until now there is no deployment from the regional capital Jigjiga to respond to the multiple crises in the zone,” the senior officer said.

According to NGO staff in the area I personally interviewed, ten centers—which were intended to host diarrhea treatment, nutritional therapy, community management of acute malnutrition (CMAM), outpatient therapeutic feeding program (OTP), stabilization centers (SC), and targeted supplementary feeding program (TSFP)—are not operating at the moment.

A SIMA TV report in July elaborated on this point: “These centers have no oral rehydration salt, resuscitation emergence fluids (IV fluids) and emergency medicine is not available at all,” a humanitarian worker was quoted as saying. 

The number of malnourished children increases by the day. According to the report, one in five people are IDPs in the Danla-Helay, Afdem, Badhiwayn and Erer districts. In many of these areas, the decline in meat and milk production caused by the drought’s impact on livestock has led to famine-like conditions in many areas.

The situation Sitti’s IDPs find themselves in is clearly dire and their very survival is threatened. To address their needs, emergency food and non-food aid needs to be rapidly distributed among those in need. Moreover, as the latest militarized clashes highlight, regional and federal politicians should prioritize de-escalating tensions between the two neighboring kilils.

Once security is restored, people who have fled should be supported in returning to their places of origin and rebuilding their livelihoods there, if they so wish to do. Finally, to restore IDPs’ dignity, re-build their trust in the state, and deter future resort to violence, the atrocities and human right violations which led to these displacements need to be investigated.

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Main photo: Displaced people in Somali region; IOM.

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About the author

Mohamed Hadi

Mohamed Hadi Gafdiid is a humanitarian worker and independent researcher on conflict and climate change based in Somali, Ethiopia.

4 Comments

  • I feel very sorry for my beloved fathers and mothers, children and the elderly people who are suffering under this paradoxical government. The massacre of the people in northen Siti is clear to everyone even to the most deafening one. The wicked federal government aware of such exodus and the Somali regional administration is so quiet as being forced not take actions against these catastrophes.
    They neglected Siti.

  • I understand and feel the pain of the victimized population, but the sad question is where are the elites, politicians, representatives, business men, etc , who hail from this regions and especially from Issa community districts ? I just come this week from the region, especially from Jijiga city and region . I have yet to hear or see someone doing a meaningful thing for the people to mitigate their suffering. This same folks who would haul and cry loud if they saw any other Somali , except own little clan , make a living or doing some business in their midst. There is something profoundly wrong with this kind of somali mentality you and clan sentiment.

  • I understand and feel the pain of the victimized population, but the sad question where are the elites, politicians, representatives, business men, etc , who hail from this regions and especially fro Issa districts ? I just come this week from the region, especiallyfrom Jijiga city and region . I have yet to hear or see someone doing a meaningful thing for the people to mitigate their suffering. This same folks who would haul and cry loud if they saw any other Somali , except own little clan , make a living or doing a business in their midst. There is something profoundly wrong with this kind of somali clan sentiment mentality.

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