Friday, December 14, 2007

Ethiopia: Healing the scars of conflict

Community members attending the meeting in Kangaten village, South Omo, Ethiopia, in December to resolve the conflict

Just a month ago, Bela, 35, a mother of two from the Karo ethnic group, saw her neighbour shot dead. "She was planting grain with her husband. She then went to a stream to fetch water. After a while members of the Bume tribe came with cattle and when they saw her they opened fire," Bela told IRIN.

In response to his wife's murder, her husband killed two members of the Nyangatom, also known as Bume. After a few days, the Nyangatoms killed another of Bela's neighbours. The revenge and counter-revenge creates a vicious cycle. Bela blamed the Nyangatom for all the conflicts in the area.

"We are small in number and have fertile land," she claimed. "But we plough the land together with our neighbouring tribes and share the product accordingly."

Bela told IRIN that in previous times such practices worked perfectly but now things have changed. She alleged that theft by the Nyangatoms ruined the relationship. Pastoralists from Dassanech and Hamer, who share a border with Nyangatoms, told IRIN that they have similar problems.

Among the Nyangatom, one of a dozen communities in South Omo, in the southern region of Ethiopia, cattle rustling between neighbouring groups is common. The Nyangatom reason that being surrounded by so many other ethnic groups makes it easy to get into conflict situations.

Killing someone from a rival group is also seen as a badge of courage. Such attitudes fuel a deadly cycle among ethnic groups that share a common culture, speak related languages, have similar lifestyles - and above all, are pastoralists. The official reasons for their conflicts are simple: to control resources.

Gethaun Tolla, Cross Border Project officer from the Ethiopian Pastoralist Research and Development Association (EPaRDA), said: "They are fighting for control over pasture land, water and fishing areas."

The Nyangatom have a population of 18,000, and also share borders with the Kenyan Turkana and the Sudanese Toposas. They have many things in common, including language - but such similarities do not stop the conflict.

Daniel Kine, a field coordinator for the Raim Riam Turkana Peace network, has first-hand knowledge of the conflicts in the North Turkana district of Kenya. He agreed that the biggest reason is resources; however, he also pointed to customs.

"There is a traditional belief that any person outside your community is your enemy," he said. "When you kill a person from the other tribe, it shows you are a man."

Ilemi Triangle

But for some, there is yet another reason for the cross-border conflict - claims over a piece of land along the borders between Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya, known as the Ilemi Triangle, measuring about 11,000 sqkm.

The land is administered by the Kenyan government, but is in dispute because of ambiguous colonial-era treaties. Apart from its significance as pasture in the dry season, analysts describe the triangle as "a gateway to an area of Sudan rich in unexplored oil reserves".

Aid workers in the border area told IRIN an unofficial demand by the Toposa for the land fuels the conflict. They allegedly blame the Toposa for using the members of the Niata Nyangatom, a sub-clan of the Nyangatom, as an instrument for displacing Turkana from the area.

"If the Turkana leave the area, the Toposa will control it indirectly through Niata Nyangatom," an aid worker, who requested anonymity, told IRIN. "The Niata Nyangatom also displaced the Mursi residents within 60km of the border. The Mursi pushed their neighbouring tribes and the chain reaction goes on."

Small arms trade

Whatever the reason behind the conflict, it is clear that the illegal small arms trade in the area fuels it. Many analysts also agree that arms are more readily accessible because of the decades-long civil war in Southern Sudan.

Lobko Lale, 35, an Ethiopian Karo pastoralist, takes his Kalashnikov everywhere; for him, it is the sole means for ensuring his safety. "I bought it from the Bena [Dassanech] men and it cost me five cows."

He was lucky. The average cost of a Kalashnikov or AK47 can reach 35 cattle although the flood of guns into the area has reduced the price of late. According to Alemyaehu Lochelia, a policeman in Kangaten, there is also a wide variety among the stock from the border area of Sudan - one can find anything from the German 7.62mm G3automatic rifle to an M1 American submachine gun.

But now, for the first time in years, Lobko is travelling a long distance without his gun. When he came to Kangaten with almost 400 pastoralists to participate in peace talks, he left his rifle at home.

"I did not bring my gun," said Lobko. "A gun is not needed in a meeting for peace."

Sustainable solution

The talks were organised by a local NGO, Atoweksi Eksil Pastoralist Development Association (AEPDA), with the support of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). It took three months for AEPDA's chairman Abraham Bongoso to bring together pastoralists from 17 groups, two from Kenya and one from Sudan. Abraham described the meeting as "one step for bringing a sustainable solution to a longstanding problem".

The pastoralists, including Bela and Lobko, gathered in Kangaten for four days before reaching a consensus and passed a resolution: any person who steals cattle will double the number given back in reparation and anybody who commits murder will be handed over to the government, with 30 heads of cattle given to the bereaved family. However, despite the agreement, Bela and others felt a real reconciliation between ethnic groups should be made the traditional way.

"The Nyangatoms should come to our village and slaughter a goat," said Bela. "Then we should wash our hands with fat together."

Published with the permission of IRIN
Disclaimer: This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or Mike Hitchen Consulting
Photo: Copyright