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How the Ethiopian town of Gambella got caught up in Sudanese refugees limbo

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How the Ethiopian town of Gambella got caught up in Sudanese refugees limbo

The Ethiopian town of Gambella, once a thriving port, has now become little more a refugee camp for Southern Sudanese fleeing the war in their country. But the presence of the refugees is causing tensions among the locals. Will the current peace-deal in South Sudan restore the city to its former status? Report by James Jeffrey.

The Baro River, meandering through the Ethiopian city of Gambella amid an atmosphere of tropical languor creates an almost cliched archetype of the Joseph Conrad-esque African river port. Except for the fact that there is not a single boat on the river.

The 2013 outbreak of civil war in South Sudan, whose border lies 50 kilometres from the city, put an end to the thriving trade that once plied the Baro River between Gambella and Juba, the South Sudanese capital.

Thousands of South Sudanese refugees poured over the border into refugee camps around Gambella and throughout the same-named and most westerly of Ethiopia’s federal states.

This stoked local ethnic tensions and meant Gambella became subsumed into the humanitarian response of foreign NGOs. Now, though, the peace process that began after South Sudan’s warring factions signed a deal in late 2018 means Gambella city, and the wider region, might have a chance of regaining its identity and purpose.

“The river used to be full of boats and trade before 2013 and the war broke out,” one Gambella local says of the Baro River and its tributaries flowing across the border.

Nowadays the most urgent traffic comes from the plethora of white SUVs, plastered with the logos of almost every NGO to be found in Ethiopia. Some locals are employed by NGOs as drivers and translators, but the vast majority of locals struggling to get by see little of the money generated by Ethiopia’s refugee industry.

In 2018 the budget required for Ethiopia’s total refugee population—around 900,000—was estimated at $618m.

“You can see the conflict of interest dynamic in the influence refugee policy has,” says a worker with a foreign aid organization assisting refugees in Ethiopia, who wished to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the subject. “The refugees are getting more, while the locals are getting nothing.”

Strength in numbers

It is hard to visit Gambella and not be struck by the height of many locals, some with horizontal scarification lines across their foreheads—the Nuer, one of five ethnic groups populating the region.

Close ties and tensions between the Nuer and Anuwak, the two largest ethnic groups, representing about 45% and 26% of the population, respectively, date back centuries. The modern border between the two nations does not delineate where either group lives nor is movement across the South Sudan-Ethiopia border a new phenomenon – all of which compounds the historical interplay of numerical advantage and the tussle over land and power.

“Among the ethnic tribes the one with power has traditionally been the largest—all the refugees are Nuer,” says 32-year-old Tutbol, a government worker in Gambella.

By 2018, 485,000 South Sudanese refugees lived in the Gambella region, according to UNHCR, the United Nations refugee organization. Some displaced Nuer brought arms across the border, destabilizing an already tense region.  Hence the overt security presence in Gambella.

On a café veranda, trying to escape the burning midday sun, a group of regional police in blue and black camouflage fatigues relaxes, a heavy-duty machine gun resting on its bipod on the floor.

“The fact that the Nuer and Anuwak exist on both sides of the border makes it easy for people of both communities to pass backwards and forwards, taking with them their conflicts both between the two tribes but also at the national level,” says John Ashworth, who has been working in South Sudan and the surrounding area for the last 30 years.

The Gambella region has gained a reputation as a no-go area among foreigners not involved in the aid effort. This stigma extends to the Ethiopian government’ tendency to take a dismissive view of the region, not helped by a prejudice—one that extends throughout Ethiopian society—that the blacker one is the less Ethiopian you are, says Dereje Feyissa, a senior advisor at the Addis Ababa-based International Law and Policy Institute.

“The Ethiopian centre has always related to its periphery in a predatory way,” Dereje says. “This is not only because of the geographic distance but also the historical, social and cultural differences which the discourse on skin colour signifies.”

Ethiopia’s outlier

The Gambella region is something of an anomaly in Ethiopia, displaying stronger historical, ethnic and climatic links to neighboring South Sudan.

“This was not the Ethiopia of cool highlands and white flowing traditional dress, but Nilotic Africa, in the blazing southwestern lowlands near the Sudanese border,” recalls Steve Buff, a former Peace Corps Volunteer. “This was much closer to our childhood National Geographic images of Africa than any place we’d seen before in Ethiopia.”

Gambella city itself has an intriguing modern history. In the late 19th century Britain came knocking, seeing the Baro’s navigable reach to Khartoum as an excellent highway for exporting coffee and other produce to Sudan and Egypt.

The Ethiopian emperor granted Britain the use of land for a port and Gambella was established in 1907. Only a few hundred hectares in size, this tiny British territory became a prosperous trade centre as ships from Khartoum sailed regularly during the rainy season when the water was high.

The Italians captured Gambella in 1936 but it was back with the British after a bloody battle in 1941. Gambella became part of Sudan in 1951, but was reincorporated into Ethiopia five years later. By 1962, the first of a several civil wars broke out next door in Sudan at the start of a 50-year quest for South Sudanese independence.

“This time it is different, as the international community is involved,” Gatdet Jock, a South Sudanese refugee, remarked while reading Facebook posts on his smartphone in late October about the arrival in Juba of ex-Vice President Riek Machar for the first time since 2016 to take part in a peace ceremony.

More than just a piece of paper this time?

Some have noted how the latest peace deal is essentially the same as the agreement signed in 2015 which collapsed after about a year—with Macher feeling Juba on foot, chased by helicopter gunships—and that building a tangible peace must overcome deep-rooted rancour on all sides steeped in more than a half century of pain and conflict.

But since the latest agreement, the indications seem more promising. By December, the security situation in South Sudan had significantly improved, stated Jean-Pierre Lacroix, head of UN Peacekeeping. And by the start of February, David Shearer, head of the UN Mission in South Sudan, told reporters in New York that political violence has “dropped dramatically.”

Shearer added that the success of the peace agreement will be partly measured by the extent to which people return to home towns and villages.

UNHCR recently observed spontaneous movements by South Sudanese refugees from various Gambella-based camps heading toward South Sudan – an estimated 5,000 since mid-December.

Perhaps a good sign of what Shearer discussed? Interviews with the refugees, however, indicated they were returning to South Sudan for fear of retaliatory action following clan-based conflicts in camps, while some said they were going to visit their families, and would eventually return to the camps.

It appears South Sudanese refugees will be in Gambella for some time yet, while the Baro River will flow on, its seemingly placid surface remaining undisturbed by river traffic, through a land of limbo caught up in the surrounding troubles.   

“There are plenty of crocodiles, though you won’t see them as the water is high,” the local man says.

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