NAIROBI, KENYA — THE human drama in southern Ethiopia and Sudan shows the difficulty of feeding and protecting people caught up in political conflicts in the Horn of Africa. Thousands of Sudanese who had fled civil war and drought in their own country in the past several years are now returning involuntarily from refugee camps in Ethiopia because they were attacked by rebels, said to be members of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).
According to United Nations and other relief officials, Ethiopian rebels attacked the refugee camps because they consider them hiding places for the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) - a group that was backed by former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam and thus considered an enemy by the rebels who fought to overthrow him.
Sudan bombs its own
On May 14, the Sudanese government bombed Sudanese who had walked several days to reach the small town of Nasir, killing more than 30 people, according to relief officials. Two border villages also on the route of the returning Sudanese were bombed earlier last month.
From the Sudan government's point of view, many of those returning are either Sudanese rebels or their supporters who are fighting for autonomy in the south. Nasir is considered a military target and has been bombed in the past.
Western sources suspect that the SPLA has used the refugee camps as a training and recruitment ground.
A UN official in Geneva says it is now "confirmed" that the SPLA stole or destroyed some 50 relief trucks and other vehicles May 29 from the area of the refugee camps, apparently for military purposes. The SPLA routinely denies it has a military presence in Ethiopia.
"War continues in the south," a Sudanese official told the Monitor. "Bombing is part of the war. I don't have any specific information on the recent bombings." As for assistance in Nasir to returning refugees, the official said there is an agreement between the UN and Sudan covering relief, and that any aid should conform to that agreement.
To offer what one UN official calls a "human shield," UNICEF officials operating out of Nairobi set up an office in Nasir June 3. The idea is that their presence will discourage Sudan's government from bombing the town, so it can be used as a distribution center for relief supplies for returning Sudanese.
"We have established a very clearly marked compound, a UN presence, and put 11 staff [in Nasir]," says Vincent O'Reilly, southern coordinator of UNICEF's Operation Lifeline Sudan, a relief program.
Mr. O'Reilly is asking donor nations to contribute $3.5 million for nonfood aid, including medicine, farming tools, fishing hooks, seeds, and money to pay for airdrops along the refugee routes, which pass through some extremely remote areas. He says food assistance is also urgently needed from other UN agencies.
There are conflicting reports on just how many refugees are returning to Sudan. O'Reilly saw about 200 - "the first batch in Nasir, adding that "300,000 could be on the move" in the same direction.
Dutch journalist Wim Bossema, of the newspaper Volkskrant, just back from the border, says he saw at least 5,000 and probably more refugees at a village just inside Sudan. He said the returnees told him thousands more were on their way.
Many returning refugees have long treks ahead of them if they hope to return to their homes or villages. The fact that this is the rainy season, and the area is very swampy, is likely to make the journey even more arduous.
Refugees in Ethiopia
But one Western relief official says reports reaching Addis Ababa by June 3 indicate many of the refugees are still in or around the camps in Ethiopia.
Either way, most need urgent help. O'Reilly hopes to see "a brokered agreement between the interim government in Addis Ababa and the [rebels]" in the area of the camps to allow the area to be used as a staging ground for relief airdrops into Sudan.
UN officials in Addis Ababa are trying to contact the local OLF rebels in the hopes of winning their cooperation for relief shipments to those still in Ethiopia.