Story Publication logo July 1, 2007

Ethiopians, part two

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Gabriel Deng, Koor Garang and Garang Mayuol, Southern Sudanese "Lost Boys" in the U.S., were forced...

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Jen Marlowe, for the Pulitzer Center

(please read Ethiopians part one if you haven't yet....)

There are three options available for refugees, Y., F. and S. explained to David and me, as we sat on the wooden benches. Repatriation to the country of origin, integration into the host country, or resettlement into a third country. Repatriation wasn't possible in their case, they said. They would face political persecution, perhaps torture, or worse. Kenya, the country hosting them as refugees, is not willing to offer them integration into the country. And, with their situation as it is, they're not currently elligible for third-country resettlement.

The details of their situation was confusing, and teasing it out in full took three separate meetings. When they arrived to Kakuma in 1993, they told us (for the same reasons that they can't return to Ethiopia--persecution, harrassment, torture from the government), they were given a mandated refugee status by UNHCR (the United Nations High Commission for Refugees). However, as they were never properly profiled by UNHCR, their status was always temporary and had to be renewed every year. After fourteen years, (during which many of them worked as teachers in the camp's 27+ primary schools--many of the Sudanese refugees, Gabriel Bol, Koor and Garang included were taught by Ethiopian refugees) their status was reduced from a refugee under the mandate of UNHCR to "prima facie"--an undetermined status. Still able to live in the camp, still able to receive the services provided by UNHCR and the other agencies--but, without a mandated refugee status, not eligible for third-country resettlement. A kind of refugee limbo--as if the life of a refugee even with full status wasn't in enough limbo.

David and I frantically jotted down notes, trying to understand the background and nuances of the situation. Y. and F. patiently answered our questions, with S. interjecting information eagerly.

The Ethiopian Community, they explained to us, consisted of 500 heads of family--around 2,500 people total. They have all been "downgraded" to prima facie status. The community is a cross section of Ethiopian tribes and languages and religions, though about half are Oromo. The Ethiopian community in the camp, they pointed out, however, is distinct from the Oromo Community, which has it's own administration, even though half of the Ethiopian Community consist of Oromo.

"Why is that?" I asked. "Are the people who comprise the Oromo community Oromo separatists, or..."

Y. shrugged. "It's not good for us to ask too many questions." he replied.

More mystery and intrigue were laid out during those conversations.

Ethiopian refugees in Nairobi, we were told, were, from time to time, being killed, detained, or disappeared. Ethiopian refugees had been kidnapped, taken to the Ethiopian embassy and later released. Y. and F. felt sure this was being executed by cross-border squads, agents of the Ethiopian government. "How did they get in, we ask ourselves? Who is cooperating with them? There must be collusion with the Kenyan police." F said, but when I pressed for more detail, he reverted to "We don't know anything, we can't investigate these matters or our lives will be in danger."

In 1994, they told us, an Ethiopian "refugee" who had been in the camp for three months, shot and injured another Ethiopian refugee. He then turned himself into the police. He's now back in Ethiopia, walking the streets freely, they have heard.

In 2005, an Ethiopian refugee was killed in front of his store at 11:30pm, but neither he nor his store was robbed or looted, a typical feature of the murders perpetrated by the local Turkana community.

Isolated incidents? Perhaps. They certainly couldn't prove that these shootings had the fingerprint of the Ethiopian government and the backing of the Kenyan. But the refugees sitting across from us emphasized the fear generated by these isolated incidents. It added up, in their minds, to something beyond the growing violence in Kakuma camp.
This was underscored in their response to my request that they share their personal stories about how and why they fled Ethiopia and what they had been sujected to there.

Y. F. and S. shared glances. "We understand your need to know," Y. said finally. "It's important if you're going to write about us. But honestly, we can't talk about this, even with each other. No one sitting around this table knows my story. We can't even trust each other."

In 1999, F explained, UNHCR had a meeting with the entire Ethiopian community, with the Kenyan police present. UNHCR was threatening to deport them, he said, because they said that some of us still had our Ethiopian passports and were using them to travel back and forth from the camp to Ethiopia. (a mandated refugee cannot use their passport from their country of origin any longer)

The community was furious--not so much at UNHCR's threats of collective punishment, but at the fact that they had kept this informatoin concealed until that point. "If some from our community are going back and forth to Ethiopia, why did you keep quiet until now? You've endangered all our lives!" they responded.
S. summed it up. "I know and love these people. If I'm sick, they're the ones who will take me to the hospital and sit with me there. But I can't put my story in front of them..."

UNHCR has begun profiling their cases, F. told us, but very slowly--and primarily from the Oromo community.
Our final day I went to say goodbye. "There's an update," F. told me eagerly as he led me back into the mud-walled-white-washed room. "The community leaders had a meeting with UNHCR this morning. Next week a senior protection officer from UNHCR in Nairobi is coming to clear up the issue with our status. Perhaps we'll have an answer as early as next week."

But after sixteen years, it's still very much an open question. They've been promised answers time and again, they told me, only to have meetings cancelled and delayed and straightforward answers avoided.

"I don't know if I will someday be able to go back to my country, will find a new opportunity somewhere else, or will die here," Y. said as I shook his hand goodbye. "There is nothing more painful than living an ambiguous life."

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