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Caught Between War and Hunger

In the early hours of the morning, before sunrise, refugees in Borama gather near an area where bread is sold out of wheelbarrows, hoping for hand-outs. The nearby tea shops do what they can to help hundreds of people who have left fighting and drought in Ethiopia for sanctuary in Somaliland's border city, dishing out hot tea. At night, families lie in rows on the pavements, huddled under blankets.

Anajow Abana travelled 300 km from Tigray, in northern Ethiopia, to Somaliland in January. Now she and her three-year-old daughter are living on the city's streets, surviving on the charity of local people. 'We fled from fighting and drought,' she says. 'The fighting was so bad and they killed my husband and two of my children. It took us 12 days to get here and was such a difficult time,' she says.

Mimi Tadasse is also living on the streets of Boroma. It took her 14 days to reach the city. 'We got here a week ago,' she says. 'It was a very hard journey. We had to go through fighting areas, and it was dangerous.' Mimi is from the Amhara region of Ethiopia, which has been engulfed in conflict as part of the war that began between forces loyal to the Tigrayan Regional Government and the Ethiopian Armed Forces in November 2020, and quickly spiralled to include a number of armed groups, regional militias and the Eritrean military.

Mohamamed Baradhe, the mayor of Borama, home to about 200,000 people, believes the number of refugees now in the city to be much higher than the estimates. He said that according to immigration officials, at least 10,000 have crossed over in the last two months alone and that many will also have crossed unofficially across the porous border. Many refugees travel on to Hargeisa and other areas rather than staying in Boroma. Some walk all the way to Bosasso and try to get a boat to across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen. From there they walk to Saudi Arabia with hope of employment as labourers or shepherds.

It is much easier for Ethiopians from the Somali region of Ethiopia to assimilate and find a place to set up a shelter in a refugee camp as they speak the language. It is much more challenging for those coming from Tigray, Amhara or Oromia.

There are two camps for refugees in Boroma where more than 2,000 families reside. Some have been in the camps for more than 20 years, others just a few days. There is little infrastructure, but there is a school built by UNICEF and local and international NGOs have assisted with latrines and water points.

The plight of the refugees in Borama is part of a growing crisis which is engulfing the horn of Africa, where 14 million people face hardship because of inter-related climate and conflict crises. Consecutive droughts have exacerbated the effects of war, leading to water scarcity, livestock deaths, soaring food prices and acute insecurity.

The mass movement of vulnerable people over insecure border areas threatens to further destabilise the region and harm communities, with many migrants facing the additional threat of unexploded ordnance and landmines as they move through unfamiliar territories. The border with Ethiopia was heavily fought over from the 1960s and especially during the 80s and 90s. The former battle areas are heavily contaminated with UXO (unexploded ordnance). Dayis Amin and his wife Suldan are living in a refugee camp in Borama with their eight children, having fled a disputed area close to Harar, Ethiopia. They said they couldn't grow any crops because of the combination of fighting and drought. Dayis says: 'It is difficult here. Some days we eat nothing. We had a good life before. We had 20 cows and 30 sheep. Then there was trouble and we couldn't get by. We couldn't farm because of the fighting, so when the drought came all the animals died. There were also explosive dangers where we were from the fighting. About six months ago a group of children were playing with a metal item just 150 meters from our house. There was an explosion and five children died.'

Omar Mohammed, Somalia country director for MAG, which clears unexploded ordnance and landmines, and delivers projects to keep communities safe from explosives, small arms and light weapons, said: 'Moving across borders into Somaliland to seek humanitarian assistance or better conditions is the only way to cope for these people; while the UXOs and mines litter both side of the border from previous wars. The UN estimates there were over 317,000 newly displaced people within Somalia in January 2022 alone due to conflict and drought-related issues.

'We are doing our best to keep people safe by advising them of the risks of unexploded ordnance and landmines in the border areas but they face multiple other risks because of the drought. Women and girls are having to walk longer distances to access water, for instance, exposing them to gender-based violence.'

In the town of Baligudable, some 150 miles south-east of Borama, refugees from Ethiopia arrive on a daily basis, along with displaced Somalis seeking water and food.

'People are dying,' said Abdi Karim Mohamed, director of families and livelihoods for the local government, 'We don't have enough water and we need help. Our reservoirs are dry. We bring water trucks all the way from Hargeisa, but that is very expensive and we can't manage to do that very often.'

The Abdi Rahman family have just arrived in the town and are setting up makeshift shelters. 'We had to leave our home because the animals were dying because of the drought,' says family matriarch Koos. 'We had 200 goats before, but now we have only five. We have one cow – we lost four. The first animal died three months ago and then more and more died as they became weaker. We had lived there for generations but every year it has become harder and harder to survive.'

Rein Paulsen, director for emergencies and resilience at the UN Food and Agriculture Programme (FAO) said: 'We are most definitely now sitting on the brink of catastrophe, time is running out.'

'Harvests are ruined' said Michael Dunford, regional director for the East African bureau of the UN World Food Programme (WFP), 'livestock are dying, and hunger is growing.'

This current drought is becoming one of the worst climate-induced emergencies seen in the horn of Africa. Forecasts for the next rainy season, due in the coming weeks and months, remain mixed and there is only a brief window to scale-up a humanitarian response before communities experience the worst effects.

Should the rains fail again, it will be the first time in more than 40 years that four dry seasons will have occurred consecutively. For people like Anajow, and the millions of already vulnerable people in this part of the world, that is a terrifying prospect.
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