Galcha area, Vicariate of Hawassa, south central Ethiopia
Since April 2018, interethnic violence has rocked many parts of Ethiopia, especially among the various ethnic groups living in areas of south central and southeastern Ethiopia. In the east, violence has claimed the lives of at least six priests; it has led to the torching of seven churches, and the deaths of many believers, prompting the patriarch of the nation’s preeminent faith community, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, to undertake 16 days of fasting, abstinence and prayer.
The recent violence in south central Ethiopia has pitted the Gedeo tribe of the Southern Nations and Nationalities People region against the neighboring Guji Oromo of the Oromia region. Since April, more than 650,000 Gedeo people have been displaced from five Guji-dominated zones, and more than 150,000 Guji people have been displaced from their homes in a Gedeo-dominated area. The majority of both peoples are Protestant; some, however, identify as Ethiopian Orthodox Christian, Muslim or Catholic.
In late June, the government reports that “despite peace and reconciliation efforts led by traditional elders,” and the deployment of the Ethiopian Defense Forces, violence and displacement continues. “The Federal Government has set up a commission to look at the challenges arising from the current regional boundaries and explore better ways of addressing them,” the government report explained.
These border disputes, which some observers attribute to the violence in south central Ethiopia, date to the Transitional Government of Ethiopia (1991-95), which redefined Ethiopia’s regional boundaries after the collapse of the dictatorial government that had toppled Ethiopia’s ancient monarchy in 1974.
IMPACT ON LOCAL CHURCHES
“All of the IDPs [internally displaced peoples] have lost their livelihoods,” reported CNEWA’s regional director for Ethiopia, Argaw Fantu, who visited the Galcha area in early August. “Their houses have been burned to the ground, their livestock killed, their fields and crops — mostly coffee and enset, the staple for both peoples — destroyed.
“And then there is the loss of human life inflicted on the other by both communities these last three months,” he added.
In Galcha, an area that straddles a contested stretch of land some 270 miles south of the capital of Addis Ababa, some 4,400 survivors first took shelter in six school compounds, public and Catholic, as well as the clinic of the Catholic parish of St. Paul. The parish, which includes some 6,000 Catholics, run primary and secondary schools and a clinic that normally treats 180 people a day.
“When the conflict first broke out our school compound was flooded with more than 400 people with their domestic animals,” said the pastor of St. Paul’s, Ugandan Father Tiberius Onyuthfua. “Days went by with no food and other essential provisions, especially for children under 5 and nursing mothers.
“These people have lost everything, burnt, destroyed and looted.”
After a few weeks, the Social and Development Office of the Vicariate of Hawassa — the local jurisdiction of the Catholic Church that includes the parish of St. Paul in Galcha — appealed for emergency support with a strategy that included two phases: First, rush lifesaving food, emergency medical supplies and clothing. Second, resettle displaced people.
Many of the displaced 733 families have now moved out of the parish’s school compound and are temporarily sheltered with families. But the situation is dire, reports CNEWA’s Argaw Fantu, as the conditions are overcrowded, heightening the risk of communicable and waterborne diseases, such as malaria. Clinics are already reporting cases of intestinal illnesses, pneumonia and scabies.
But many “still return to the parish grounds daily for food and medical assistance,” continued Mr. Fantu.
“The situation is very frustrating and disturbing,” reported Sister Berhane Yoseph, a Franciscan Missionaries of Christ, who has served as the administrator of the clinic for the past six years.
“We quit our regular health care services. All our staff is engaged in emergency services. Some of our staff, because they are from the other tribe [the Guji], have escaped for fear of being attacked.
“Available resources for distribution are depleting. We don’t see hope for resettlement. Local authorities are engaged elsewhere and no one is visiting us. All the while, children are crying for food. How one can remain silent?”
Complicating matters is the fact that parish assistance for the displaced is directed to only one of the community’s impacted by the violence: “The clinic is now at risk,” added Sister Berhane Yoseph.
“I am worried and confused. We are serving only the Gedeo people, who are the majority of the displaced. But the church is universal and her service is for both peoples displaced by the violence.”
Limited resources and security concerns prohibit the parish from reaching out to the Guji — for now, the clinic administrator said, adding that she nevertheless hears calls for help every day.
“We need both prayer and material support.”
On 13 August, CNEWA rushed $40,000 in emergency aid to the Vicariate of Hawassa to help secure supplies of fortified soya-cereal mix, high energy biscuits, beans, oil and whole wheat, as well as soap, water purifying chemicals, water containers and essential medicines for the 733 families seeking help from the parish of St. Paul in Galcha for up to five months.
More funds are urgently needed, as hopes for a quick resettlement of the displaced families evaporate, and as the needs of the Guji people are finally addressed.
“Amid this crisis,” said Sister Berhane Yoseph, “the people are very grateful for our services. They say, ‘this is the only place where we receive fair and equal help.’
“We are a really great hope to them!”