Nothing but birds and big space


by Ann Witteveen

It doesn’t take as long as you might think to get from my desk in Ottawa where I work as Oxfam’s humanitarian manager to a straw mat in the Heloweyn refugee camp in South Eastern Ethiopia.

Only three flights, the last by a small single-engine Cessna Caravan and a one hour SUV ride down a bumpy track that passes for a road.  But the relative ease of travelling such a distance bears no relation to the different and difficult circumstances of the women I came to meet.

The camp is the one of five across a desolate stretch of the Ogaden desert, close to the Somali border. The heat is astonishing, otherworldly.  The wind through the car window feels like it comes from a blow dryer, the cups on the kitchen rack at the guest house like they came out of a dishwasher.  The wind whips the sand into ‘habubs’ or little dust storms. Everything, including my face, gets coated in orange dust.
The women I’m interviewing close their eyes briefly as the habub passes and seem a bit amused as I sputter and cough and lose my place in the conversation.  We are discussing the life they live in the remote camp and the challenges they and their families face.

Most have been here over a year, one woman for 16 months.  “I was in the first mini-bus,” she told me.  “After walking for four days we were given food and medicine at the transit camp and then moved here.  There was nothing, just the birds and this big space.  They gave me a tent and Oxfam helped us with water and built latrines.”

‘They’ refers to the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, which coordinates protection of refugees with UN partners, donors, governments and relief agencies like Oxfam. Ethiopia now hosts some 370,000 refugees, more than half of them from Somalia, the majority of them women and children.

Having eked out a living through several years of drought, watched their animals sicken and die and their crops wither, the women I speak with were finally driven from Somalia by the violence of armed groups. Whole villages and towns fled in terror.

In the camp they are relieved to feel safe and are happy their children are in school.  Relief agencies like Oxfam, they said, have really helped, with necessities like jerry cans, washing buckets, and soap, as well as health promotion activities, many specifically delivered to women.  One was an education campaign against female genital mutilation, illegal in Ethiopia.
Despite their Spartan living conditions, these women were incredibly upbeat. Their  only real frustration was not being able to work to earn some money for a few ‘luxuries’ like milk for their weaning infants, a bit of sugar for their tea.  I tried to put myself in their shoes, wondering how I would cope – but couldn’t.

These women had survived incredible odds and hardship.  Help from Oxfam and other agencies made things easier in the short term and is essential for saving lives. But it was their own inner resilience that would see them through this crisis and any in the future that comes their way.

Ann Witteveen is Humanitarian Manager at Oxfam Canada.