Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Tanzania in 1993 – genocide in Burundi

How I come to be there
It’s December 1993, and there have been mass killings in Burundi. People are fleeing to Tanzania. There is virtually no reporting of the massacres in Britain and Nick Stockton, from Oxfam's Emergencies Department wants coverage, to press the international community into action. The refugees’ living conditions are very nasty. Many are crammed in unsanitary conditions. Disease will escalate. I am to go with Odhiambo Anacletti, a Tanzanian who leads Oxfam’s African communications, and a camera man whose name, I am ashamed to say, I cannot recall. We are to get stories that can get on the news.
It’s my first experience of this sort of work. It’s urgent; the killings continue and anything that can be done to stop them should be. The trip is agreed on 17 December and we fly out that night.
We meet Karen Twinning, who heads the East Africa work, in Nairobi and fly out next day on a light aircraft from Wilson Airport, across Lake Victoria to Mwanza, and then Kigoma where we meet Alfred Sakafu, Oxfam’s country representative, and Emmanuel Kallonga. This is Odhiambo’s old stamping ground when he was in the Tanzanian civil service and he knows someone everywhere we stop.
Tanzania was one of the earliest countries to have an Oxfam country representative. Julius Nyerere asked Oxfam to set up a programme and the first representative in 1984 was Odhiambo with Alfred as his deputy. Both were secondees from the government.
The roots of conflict
I’m on a steep learning curve, helped by Odhiambo, Nick, Karen and Dave Waller.
There are three ethnic groups in the region, the Twa, the Hutu and the Tutsi. The Twa were the original indigenous people, pygmy hunter-gatherers, who are 1% of the region’s population.  Most people are Hutu, who migrated into the area in the first half of this millennium. From the 16th century, there was Tutsi migration. The Hutu were farmers, and the Tutsi were hunters. There is no clear analysis of their historical relationship, but it is likely that there was of a high degree of feudalism, with Tutsi as the feudal overlords, and Hutu as the serfs. Odhiambo giggles at my, “So Tutsi are like Normans and Hutu like Saxons?”
Europeans came late in the 19th century, and Rwanda-Urundi became part of German East Africa in 1894; after World War I, the Belgians were the colonial power. They exploited feudal relationships, but without accepting the feudal duties of an overlord. Conflict, between 1960 and 1962, led to many Tutsi fleeing to Uganda. They're still there, and have been insurgents into Rwanda in recent years.
In 1962 Rwanda-Urundi became the Republic of Rwanda and the Kingdom of Burundi. A military coup in 1966 led to Burundi becoming a republic. There were mass killings of Hutus in 1972 under a state of martial law declared by President Michel Micombero after a Hutu rebellion.
In 1976 the more moderate Jean Baptiste Bagaza took power. The Hutu population was protected from dominance by the Tutsi minority but the country faced serious economic problems caused by its being landlocked, having a high population density and over use of land. Natural mineral resources were exploited by Belgian and American companies.
In 1987 Pierre Buyoya overthrew Bagaza and conflict between Hutu and Tutsi broke out again. Rebellions against Tutsi landlords were put down severely by the predominantly Tutsi army. 60,000 Hutu fled to Rwanda, but returned in 1989 when some peace returned.
Last year Buyoya put a multi-party constitution in place and called elections. He led the Tutsi party into the 1993 elections, where he was defeated by Melchior Ndadaye’s Hutu party. Ndadaye balanced his appointments between Tutsi and Hutu and was hailed as leading a successful transition to democracy. But, on 24 October, only 3 months after the election, he was assassinated during an attempted coup. This led to the current massacres, which seem among the worst in Burundi's history. Current reports are that tens of thousands have died at the hands of the two militias, the Tutsi “Undefeated” and the Hutu “Intagohekas (those who never sleep). Refugees and displaced people are well over half a million people.
Politics and logistics
Lake Tanganyika
Kigoma Railway Station
The first impressions of Kigoma are of its geography and history. Lake Tanganyika is magnificent; and the design of the railway station shows that it was built when this was German East Africa.
There are few aid agencies working in the area. The Tanganyika Christian Relief Service (TCRS), Concern and Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) are the main ones apart from Oxfam. We meet them on the first evening.
Many of the problems in helping refugees are rooted in the politics of flight. When people flee from Rwanda and Burundi, Tanzania seems safe to them. Tanzania has coped with refugees for years with little support from others. The government is between a rock and a hard place. They cannot reject suffering people, but the load on their own people is heavy. They try to manage the situation by defining areas where refugees can go; but people in fear of their lives are nervous; MSF say that, when they tried to move 4,500 people from Kibondo, most of them ran away.
The government says that moving people to new, permanent sites will be the priority for the next 6 weeks, but there isn’t the transport to move them. There are only 6 trucks in the region, and only 4 are working.  The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has promised 50 trucks but none have arrived. Delay is crucial. The roads are in a bad way. Heavy rain is making them difficult. The imminent rainy season will make them impassable.
And there are problems with the government sites. Alfred says that at Mugombe, one of the sites, land demarcation is unclear; there is no access road; water supplies are insufficient with the nearest spring more than a kilometre away. Pressure is being brought on Oxfam to drill for water, which is costly and slow, although there are water supplies elsewhere. Oxfam is working to provide clean water, health care and sanitation; there are varying degrees of progress in different places because of difficulties of access and delays in getting water equipment delivered.
There is poor coordination between aid agencies, government and UNHCR – who are being pressed to do better.
Meanwhile, people are losing weight at a kilo per day; and more people are arriving. Numbers are not clear, because people move back and fore between camps and their homes in Burundi, but as many as 100,000 people are due to move to Mugombe. It is impossible to move these numbers of people before the rains start. Even if there were enough trucks, the numbers are far beyond the capacity to move them. Over and over again I hear that the aid agencies are dealing with huge numbers; record numbers for them; and far too many to move before the rains come.
The Southern Camps
In the morning, we drive out of Kigoma, away from the lake up to Kasulu. It is dry, rolling, upland savannah. We pass through some small towns, but it's not a heavily populated area. Alfred says he is afraid that the scale of the killing in Burundi may be larger than any one has reported yet. Nobody is sure how many refugees there will be or how many killings there have been. Of one thing he is sure; the resources are insufficient to meet the demands.
Oxfam set up a base in Kasulu a week ago. All staff have moved here from Arusha, so regular work is suspended. The rest of the world may not have dropped tools to deal with this crisis, but the staff has. They are committed to dealing with the emergency; but they also know that their day jobs won’t go away. Things are mounting up which will have to be dealt with later.
We go and get some lunch, and Alfred shows us a market stall, selling agricultural implements. A panga, or machete, which is what most of the killing has been done with, costs about £1. I buy one to show to people at home what they are, and it travels back later in the film tripod bag.
Biharu camp
The first camp we visit in the afternoon is at Biharu, on an exposed hillside. It is high land, an arid plateau with no evidence of agriculture.  The camp is a collection of grass huts on the edge of an escarpment and we can see the border in the distance. There are 15,000 people here, living in and around a school but in two weeks’ time school starts, and they will be made to leave.
Nibigira Domitira and Minani Anatoria are cooking and we talk to them. They tell us “We had a good life previously. We're lucky that our whole family is here. But there is no fodder for our goats. We were lucky to bring our goats with us, but now we cannot feed them. And we have to walk all day to get fuel. There is no fuel here on the plateau. We walk all day to get it. It is nearly 12 kilometres, there and back.  Sometimes, we walk all day looking for wood, and when we get back we still have none. It's a very bad place here. We will move.”
I ask what sort of food they are getting. “We're getting grain, but it is difficult to digest. When we're at home we eat cassava. There's not enough water either. There was not much here in the first place. Because we're here the local people are getting less.” Where are they are living? “In those grass huts; they won't hold when the rains come.”
We travel on to Kilelema where there is a much bigger camp of 30,000 people. We meet Richard Luff from the Emergencies Department. He says it’s difficult to get accurate numbers. People move between camps and some return to their homes. When they came back, they are counted again. The government wants to move these people soon.
Alfred & Richard
Odhiambo and Alfred explain that the government wants to move refugees to sites a long way from the border, well inside the Tanzanian interior. Refugees in camps close to the border are seen as a security risk; it makes it difficult to manage border traffic.
Oxfam is building water supplies, employing local and refugee labour. The locals are willing to work. Refugees are reluctant to take the work if there is a food distribution that day, or if they think that they are about to move; but they need money to survive, which puts pressure on them to work. Food distributions are only making up a quarter of what people need.
Alfred & Odhiambo
Richard says that there has been a lot of diarrhoea, and there is risk of cholera. The need is clear; the lake that was previously the only supply is small, muddy and dirty. Clean water has been flowing for a few days, and immediately reduced the levels of diarrhoeal disease. More tanks for purified water are still being built.
Building a water tank
There is a forest of tents.  As I walk among them, I find myself in the middle of a village. It was difficult to see the village among all the tents. It is engulfed. All the houses have large numbers of people sitting in or around them. Alfred says that, with very few exceptions, the local people have taken refugees into their own homes.
Sue Emmott from Emergencies and Susan Kayetta from the Arusha team are concentrating on primary health care with women. Disease is a big problem and basic hygiene is not practiced. Many refugees are not used to these conditions and need guidance in hygiene practices.
They take us to meet some of the women. Susan interprets for Consolata and Leokadia.  At least, she interprets for Consolata, because Leokadia is sitting there, apparently in a state of shock. She stares into the distance, swaying slightly and when she does speak it is in a slow, low monotone, confirming what her friend says.
Consolata says, “We both fled with our husbands. I speak Swahili because I had to flee before, in 1973. I learnt the language when I was here before. We heard about the killings of the government ministers on the radio. We didn't think. We just fled. We passed many dead bodies on the way. We did not think we would get here.”
A man comes up to Susan and tells her that he wants to tell his story for the television. He introduces us to his 9-year-old daughter, Mionzima. “She has been here for six weeks with me and her brothers and mother. Mionzima has been ill ever since we got here, with measles and dysentery. She’s in a very bad way. I'm seeing her getting worse very quickly. I've taken her to the dispensary, but there is no improvement for her.  I don't know what it's caused by. It could be caused by the new food, or by infections. I just don't know.” I ask him how he came to be here, and his story was like Consolata’s. “I heard of the killings of the government on the radio. I fled.  I was very afraid for my family, because we saw many dead people, who were shot, or killed with pangas. I had to carry the children over the river [the border] on my back.”
George Nkengurukiyimana is one of the refugee leaders. He has malaria. He tells his appalling story in English. “Although I am very ill, I must tell you the story of how women are suffering. When people have been killed by the militia they don't care whether it is women and children. Even pregnant women are being killed with pangas.  They don't kill them straight away. Their wombs are cut open to see what sex the baby is. If it is a boy, the woman is left to bleed to death. If it is a girl she is finished off.”
The story stays with me back in Kasulu, in our rather rough hotel, where it’s two to a bed; there is no power, so no means of identifying what sort of animals are scuttling about the room all night.
The Northern Camps
Next day we travel to Heru Ushingu. Paul Smith-Lomas from the Emergencies Department is here, planning the next phase of work. This will be the next place that Oxfam puts in water supplies. The Kilelema team will be moving here next week.
There are between 20,000 and 25,000 people here. There isn’t adequate clean water, and there is much dysentery and measles. However, this is the first place that seems to be organized in a more orderly fashion. After 6 weeks here, it looks as if the refugees are trying to establish themselves. There are "streets" with tents and huts laid out along them, and many of them have small cultivated plots in front of them. They are growing beans. The plants are already showing between 2 and 4 weeks’ growth.
Alfred is anxious to move on because it is a long haul to our next stop in Kitanga. Getting there is quite a journey. It is a six-hour round trip from Kasulu and a 12-hour round trip from Kigoma.  That is, if the single-track road is in a condition to drive on. It is already a muddy road before the rains come. There are several places where it is difficult, even in a Land Rover. Halfway there is a TCRS food truck that has run off the road. We offer help but there's nothing much that we can do. They just have to unload the entire shipment of food, to lighten the vehicle so that they can winch it back onto the road. It is obvious to the most untrained eye that this road is in no state to carry the traffic necessary to feed the people at the other end of it.
Much of the road lies on low land, and the forest is thick. Alfred says that the area is low lying, forested and swampy. The mosquitoes and tsetse flies love it, but people don't.
Kitanga camp
We pass few people on the road.  The contrast in the camp is marked. It is very teeming with people and very noisy. One reason it is so hectic is that there is a food distribution going on as we arrive.  It is being done by MSF and seems disorderly; food seems to be being dished out on a first come first served basis in quantities that seem to be defined by as much as people can carry.
Foul water
MSF is working here, and have taken responsibility for providing water. There are some small "bladder tanks"; they hold far less than is needed by the 25,000 people here. MSF also has a hospital in the camp. It is heavily loaded. Queues of people wait to be seen. Most are children. The doctors tell us that there is already malnutrition, and much measles and dysentery. They are also getting an increasing number of cases of sleeping sickness caused by tsetse fly infestation. There seems to be a big public health problem. The wells have got sewage very close to them. Nobody seems to be doing anything about clearing this up; nor about controlling the toilet areas.
The local population is overwhelmed, but most households are hosting refugees, many four times as many as are in their own household. This hosting and the available tents seem insufficient.
The border
The border is one kilometre away. We walk to the river, which is the border. We pass people coming from the border, and others go towards it. They are visiting their homes to collect things. People in the camp say it is safe to cross to Burundi, but they would not feel safe sleeping there.
Charles Mzobasabana tells us his story in English. “I am a teacher. I fled with my family and we hid in a hall with many other people. Hutu rank and file soldiers broke in and murdered everybody who was there. They used guns and pangas. My wife and my two children were killed.  There was nothing I could do. I was only able to escape through a window. I could see that everybody was dead. So I fled. I didn't stop until I was over the border. I will never return to Burundi. There is no peace in Burundi. None.”
He is very articulate, and we film his story as we have others. Afterwards he asks to be paid. Of course, we don’t pay, but I’m less convinced by him than by many other stories.
We have to leave for Kigoma and get there about 11 p.m. The contrast is huge. The hotel in Kigoma is a different kettle of fish from that in Kasulu; it’s very basic but set on Lake Tanganyika. When we wake it is to a spectacular view to the mountains of Zaire. It’s just along the road from Ujiji where Burton and Speke first reached the lake and where Stanley met Livingstone.
Kigoma Stadium
We visit the sports stadium, which is being used to house refugees. Odhiambo finds this tough.  The building of this stadium was his project when he worked for the government. When it was built, it was something that the whole town was very proud of. Not now.
Cooking in the stadium
There are only 2000 people here, but it looks worse than the bigger camps we have seen. It’s not that the people look worse off, but the contrast between the paraphernalia of the leisure industry and their destitution is marked. They’re crammed into the arena, living in plastic tents, and with inadequate sanitation. They just have the toilets that cater for the sports spectators in normal times and they are not up to the job. There is cholera here.
It’s cold at night and people don’t have many clothes. Children’s health is more at risk in the cold. A shipment of woollen tops, knitted by UK Oxfam volunteers, arrived yesterday, and some of them are being distributed here today.
A man called Michael is organizing the distribution. They could have used him in Kitanga.  It is very disciplined. To stop disorderly behaviour he is issuing clothes on the balcony of the stand. There are steps at each end of the balcony and the women bring their children up one side, register, have the children fitted, and take them down the other side. The work proceeds in an orderly fashion, but the people are being dealt with in a rather peremptory fashion, which hardly seems necessary.  It is also bizarre. It looks like a cup final ceremony.
Distributing woollen tops in Kigoma
I'm under instructions to take photographs of the distribution. Marcus Thompson, Oxfam’s Emergencies Director, has said that we have very few photographs of distributions of tops, because staff who are doing the work don't have time for photography. I do my duty, and we do lots of filming, but I'm very conscious that, while the pictures might look good to the volunteers, we are creating images of nice kids in nice tops, somewhat at odds with their situation.
Alfred, Odhiambo and I visit the UNHCR office in Kigoma and lobby for urgent action. We are concerned that too much is being left to the Tanzanian government, who do not have resources to cope with floods of refugees. What’s UNHCR doing to get international resource? We are concerned at the lack of organization, and the muddles that there are over the division of responsibilities. There is a need to get UNHCR’s act together. Can UNHCR break the deadlocks in decision-making on location of new sites; demarcation and resourcing of sites; and transport?
We are worried that people will not move, and could soon be in a death trap, with no access to them except by air, and only an expensive international rescue operation will be possible. What are UNHCR plans to maintain roads and get food in? In Kitanga we have seen over 20,000 refugees. If all 6 trucks that are currently available were used to move them, with 50 people in each truckload, there would be 60 trips needed, each taking a day. It cannot be done. Even if it could, the traffic would destroy the roads.  A different plan is needed. It is suggested to us that a different solution is for them to walk out; but they would have to walk 100 kilometres to reach an accessible place. Is this conceivable for old and young alike? When they are losing 1 kilo in weight every day? Through an area heavily populated with malarial mosquitoes and tsetse fly?
We're given a political answer. They are informing the international community but they are poorly funded. The impression is of Pontius Pilate; messages have been sent, so it’s out of our hands.
We also visit the Regional Commissioner to express concern at the policy of moving people, particularly to unsuitable areas. We are received politely, but left in no doubt that Tanzania does not want an unstable border; and that until there is a more substantial international response, they will feel under no compunction to listen to anyone’s but their own interests.
It’s difficult to argue with this, but we stress the facts as we see them, and the need to find sites for the refugees that are capable of supporting them without big infrastructural investment. We emphasize that Oxfam’s and their interests are close together and say that Alfred will stay in touch to seek the best solutions.
It is frustrating. Can we do something to raise awareness at home with our stories?
Getting back
Next day, 23 December, we fly back via Mwanza; as usual we meet a bunch of Odhiambo’s mates. Then we fly on to Nairobi, where we report to Karen on what’s going on, before getting the night flight back to London. No sleep, though, because we’re preparing our materials.
Christmas Eve is one of the oddest days of my life because my head is in a real mess by the end of it. We get to Heathrow at 5.30 a.m. and I go to Broadcasting House to do the Today programme; Odhiambo heads for White City to do BBC TV Breakfast News. Then it’s shuttling between interviews and the film edit suite.
I have to decide whether or not to use the story about pregnant women being cut open. The camera man says, “That’s the story that will get headlines”. After calls to Oxford I decide not to use it; it seems there’s too much risk that the barbarity will alienate people, particularly at Christmas; and it was the voice of one person, uncorroborated. Sky, CNN and ITN want the tapes which we get to them by noon.
Then more interviews. The last one’s at Radio Oxford at 5 p.m.
It’s my daughter Charlie’s 24th birthday, and at 5.30 I’m at the Oxford Playhouse to take the family to the pantomime. Then back home to get supper before Midnight Mass at Iffley.
I can’t sleep that night; being the Dad figure and Christmas traditions are so divorced from what I’ve seen.
And it doesn’t seem to be catching enough media interest. Should I have told that story?

Friday, 3 December 2010

Ethiopia in 1993 – HIV/AIDS

How I come to be there
It’s mid-November 1993 and I’m travelling with Brendan Gormley, who is Africa Director for Oxfam. I’m there to learn more about Oxfam’s work. Brendan is taking me to meet the Sudan and Horn of Africa regional team; to meet with Ethiopian partner organizations and to visit South Sudan. This is the third leg.

Back from Mekele, in Addis Ababa, I visit Sister Akalu, who leads HIV/AIDS work for the Conference of the Major Religious Superiors (CMRS), a Catholic organization here.

Remember that it’s 1993. There is still no effective treatment. In Britain, despite the myth busting work of Diana, Princess of Wales and much informed reporting about the condition, the media is still often hysterical about AIDS.

The worst situation in Africa is in Uganda where last year some 18% of the population was infected; although there are other serious situations in Kenya and elsewhere. In Uganda the ABC method is established; Abstain before marriage, Be faithful and use Condoms is the basis of control. But, for doctrinal reasons, Roman Catholic organizations stop short at AB.
Ugandan HIV/AIDS posters

HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia

Traditional culture in Ethiopia accepts that men will have multiple partners, but that is not the main reason that Sister Akalu says, “The prognosis for Ethiopia is just as bad as it is for Uganda.”

HIV/AIDS is bad in Ethiopia because of the war. War led to broken families, displacement, more cases of rape and an increased tendency for people to have multiple partners. During the Derg period, there were forced removals of people; after the war there were floods of refugees and returnees; famine causes even more movement. All these mass movements broke geographical barriers. "Returnees can sleep their way through Ethiopia, infecting people in isolated communities as they go.”

Denial is a big problem. Many HIV positive people refuse to believe they are unhealthy. Sister Akalu says, “A teacher at a training course was HIV positive. He asked us to find him a woman for while he was on the course.” Then, there is little health infrastructure outside big towns; even there it is poor, and government has little resource to do more.

There is a particular problem in Addis. The population has doubled, with refugees coming to the city; 50% of the hospital beds are occupied with HIV/AIDS victims; there are high levels of prostitution; and random tests on pregnant women show many to be HIV positive. There are few orphanages, and orphans of victims often end up on the street. Testing is confined to Addis. This is a real problem for dealing with the rural areas.

CMRS Aids education work

Sister Akalu says they aim to create awareness. Their work is preventative, to limit spread of the disease. CMRS uses different methods for different groups, including school children, young adults, trainers and adult community groups. Not all work is through formal education. They use puppet shows and dramas too; she takes me to meet some young people practicing a puppet show. CMRS leads workshops to train trainers all over Ethiopia, mainly through the church. They work with other NGOs, churches, and the Ministry of Health; and provide books, articles, magazines, information updates, posters, flyers, and videos. They have a pastoral ministry to complement the education. They are based here in Addis, but do regional tours too. Sister Akalu is realistic about how much difference they have made. “Awareness in the city is low, but in the country it is negligible.”

Coverage through the Catholic dioceses is better. All Roman Catholic schools in Addis have trained teachers. The Ministry of Health has asked CMRS to go to government schools and community groups, but a government invitation is not enough. Much local persuasion is required before a school will let them in. I ask about government initiatives. The Ministry of Health has trained about 500 counselors, but Sister Akalu sees a problem with them. “We believe that only about 10% of them are effective.” Hospitals are beginning to change their attitudes. There is commitment to fighting the disease, but little resource to do so. “Hospitals are forced to discharge sick people. The government cannot cope.”

The training courses are four days long, and are aimed at teachers. The biggest obstacles are getting commitment from the heads of schools to send teachers on a course, and to getting time within the school curriculum. “Within Roman Catholic schools, we aim to get the subjects looked at in the moral education part of the curriculum. In state schools it is the biology curriculum.” I wonder if there is evidence on whether either is better.

Most people retain the training, but some don't. It's best if course members have commitment before they come. Their employer has to guarantee that they will have time to train, time to teach and space to teach. Of those that come on the courses, 80% fulfill their commitments. Sister Akalu says, “Since we are dealing with qualified teachers, we do not need to teach them to teach. We need to teach them about how to deal with this subject.”

CMRS also has the only non-government counselling service. It has been established for 18 months, and has 4 counselors. “The caseload is 248 clients. At the present rate of growth there will be 2300 in a year's time, and [we] will be overwhelmed.” We look at the records, and the projections are persuasive. There are special problems with counselling. There are high levels of denial; only two or three of their clients are willing to give witness to their infection at training courses, or tell their families that they have the disease. Many victims are living on the streets and for those that have homes, home visiting is impossible because of the denial.

I am touched by Sister Akalu’s patience and care.  But there is a troubling element. When she tells me that CMRS is visiting Uganda to gain experience, she says “It’s going to be as bad here as it has been there, so their experience is the most relevant”. But, from my very limited knowledge, I understand that the Ugandans promote all parts of ABC; and here it is just AB: Abstain, Be faithful, but no Condoms.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Ethiopia in 1993 – building peace

How I come to be there

It’s mid-November 1993 and I’m travelling with Brendan Gormley, the Africa Director for Oxfam. I’m there to learn more about Oxfam’s work. This is the second leg.

I travel with Brendan to Mekele, in the north of the country. It is the heartland of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) which was the most powerful rebel force against the Derg. We are there to attend an annual round of meetings between Tigrayans and international organizations that worked together during the war. I am not prepared for the hundreds of people in town for the meetings.  This is due, in part, to these meetings marking a watershed in relationships. The Tigrayans are making a lot of changes, and relationships with the outside world are changing. Many donors want to see with what sort of organization they are now dealing.

The Tigray Transport and Agriculture Consortium winds itself up the day before we get there. During the war against the Derg it was the main channel for shipments of food into Tigray. Much of their work is being transferred to the Relief Society of Tigray (REST). This change is connected with government winding down international non-governmental organizations’ (NGOs’) work. The changes seem to be accepted by the international NGOs and institutional donors in public, but when we meet outside formal meetings many are skeptical about the new arrangements.

REST conference

This is a big conference. The meeting hall is packed full, with over 200 people representing 60 international NGOs, donor governments and multilateral donors like the UN and EU.

Gebru Asrat, Chair of the Tigray Regional Council, gives a carefully scripted welcome speech, stressing that the regional government focuses on social development; with central government, responsible for infrastructure. Guidelines to regional governments state that food aid must be linked to long term development. The issue of land tenure is not being addressed before the next election; this makes it clear that resolution of disputes about who owns what is to be delayed, although it seems urgent, since people who were forced to migrate by the Derg are now returning home to find their homes and land occupied by others.

His language changes when he answers questions. In the speech, references were to "food for development"; in answers to questions he talks of "food for work". In the speech there were constant references to "gender", but his answers are all about "men". When I mention this to Brendan, he points out a group at the front of the hall. These are people who worked with the TPLF and REST throughout the war, and helped them engage with international organizations. One way to help was writing speeches and reports, to be what donors want to hear. They have more trouble keeping their leadership on message once they are unscripted!

Most questioning is about how much power regional government has. Answers are inconclusive, so there is a lot of repetition. Each question about who controls resources produces the answer that they’re controlled in Addis. There are also questions about relations between the regional government and REST. In the war, REST was the relief arm of the TPLF, and the TPLF are now in government. I expect solidarity, but when talking of REST Gebru Asrat’s tone seems cautious.

When Teklewoini Assefa, Director of REST, talks about his organization's future he sounds defensive. He says that REST faces challenges about its political role, in light of historic links to the TPLF; but it is now an NGO. Registration as an NGO means it is independent of the TPLF. REST people are no longer TPLF people. REST is undergoing its first external audit. REST has been criticized for its size; some international organizations think that all NGOs should be small. But REST makes no apologies for its size; it is big because its size has been earned, not because of its links to the TPLF. “What is the problem?” he asks. “Are we to be judged by our historical origins? Or by our current work?”

Many if not most people in the room have known Teklewoini throughout the war. They have only seen him in combat gear. Today he is dressed in a double-breasted lounge suit, apparently to illustrate the major change in his organization.  He is here to announce that REST is an NGO.  His suit proves it. It is slightly unfortunate that this rather small man is wearing a suit that is several sizes too big for him; it does not have quite the effect that is intended. 

Questioning starts and I feel rather sorry for him. His speech finishes with an upbeat declaration of independence, and he invites questions, seeming to anticipate support for REST’s new status.  What he gets is a lot of probing
  • Are there tensions in your relations with the Tigray government?
  • How are REST’s partners involved in policy formulation?
  • How are you getting local participation?
  • What is your role in education about development?
  • Is REST replacing government programmes?
  • How will REST move from relief to development?
  • Should the nation's budget be balanced?
  • How did the TPLF react to the declaration of independence by REST?

His answers sound reasonable, but Teklewoini seems shell shocked by the interrogation.

REST people then identify issues where they are committed to improving work. Each of them produces more questions
  • They want to improve community involvement. But there is little evidence of what is being done. Is REST still very directive?
  • They want to address women’s roles better. They seem strong on theory, but probing leaves the impression that there might not be much substance.
  • They want to build REST as an NGO. Who are the stakeholders? How are they represented? What is REST’s source of legitimacy? There are no clear answers.
  • Food for development. They identify the difference from "food for work". Food for work creates jobs and then pays for them. Food for development starts with a community project and pays for it with food. How this will happen is not clear.
  • Resource mobilization. REST’s position is that resource mobilization is difficult because of the need for food aid, and because of low international attention to Ethiopia. How true is this? Or is it just a plea for longer term aid?

I go to a workshop on water but hear feedback from the other workshops too. Lots more questions were asked of REST.

REST’s main aim with seed banks is to provide locally those seeds that are currently imported. Traditional storage methods were in people’s houses but REST prefers central storage, with seeds being sold on credit to farmers. Small loans are said to be repaid at 99%, which seems very high in such a tough environment. REST claims that seed banks are important, because they involve the community in a credit based way, but donors say seed banks are risky and that REST hasn’t shown their economic viability.

Water supplies need much improvement. One aim is to increase domestic supplies of clean drinking water. I heard that there is “usually” joint consultation leading to agreement between REST and the community. REST provides advice, materials, parts and training, and community committees are set up to manage water and sanitation. For agricultural water supply, the main work is on dam construction, managed by the national Bureau of Natural Resources; it is paid for with "food for development"; and, again, there is a committee structure for management. But none of the projects has been handed over to local committees yet, even though Graham Romanes from Community Aid Abroad (CAA is the Australian Oxfam family member) says that this work has been eight years in development. He says that REST has proven capability and has taken over operational work from CAA. REST acknowledges that there is poor integration of the drinking water, sanitation and irrigation work. Better integration would make for more effect. What integration there is occurs only at village level, and not at state level.

There was much destruction of trees in the war, and reforestation is a big priority. REST and the Bureau of Natural Resources are working together on replanting, 66% of which is eucalyptus, chosen for fast growth.  It’s planned to increase quantities of fruit and other trees. The communities are not much involved in this work at present. I wonder if this the responsibility of REST or the Bureau? Is REST doing the government's work?

The war also had a bad effect on livestock, and REST provides bulls to communities to replenish stock. As with other work there were concerns expressed about involvement of local people in deciding what was best; and about the level of involvement for women. Also, there were concerns that too rapid a replenishment of stock could strip the land of vegetation and increase erosion.

There is more on similar lines on other work. There are clear concerns on the part of donors, including whether REST is too close to government; whether their practices really reflect community needs; their involvement of women; the joined up nature of their work; and whether they are driven to deliver model solutions that may not work for all. I feel that these sorts of challenges must be made, and made strongly. But I can’t help feeling that these are tough issues, even in a stable country; in a volatile and vulnerable place recently at war and still dependent on aid they are even tougher. How far should allowances be made? The question is complicated by differences of opinion among the NGOs. People who have worked there for a long time seem to take REST’s part in the debate.

Teklewoini Assefa

During the conference, hard questions come as a shock to REST. Their positioning is celebratory.  After the end of the war, they had to decide whether they were going to be a creature of government, or independent of government. They decided for the latter, and this created tensions with the government, their former partners in arms.  Today they would announce independence and form a new solidarity with the international community. Instead, they are challenged hard.  What is your legitimacy? How do you connect with your grass roots?  What are your standards? How do you involve people? The government donors and multilateral donors are moving from easy acceptance of REST’s role to demanding international NGO standards. REST has cut its links with the TPLF, and now sees its "old friends" as turning on it.

When Brendan and I meet Teklewoini, it is obvious that he feels very isolated.

He talks about NGOs as getting to the grass roots, establishing a development process through the grass roots, and creating grassroots organizations. REST becoming an NGO delivers for the grass roots. He seems hurt and genuinely surprised by the rough ride in the conference. “REST has its roots in relief and welfare. It was always based on community involvement. Sustainable development should create a community. I’m working to help people to a free choice on their own activity.” The implication is "Why can't people see that? Why do they attack me?"

Brendan and I show sympathy for the hard time he’s had, admiration for REST, and interest to work with them. We ask how he sees the relations between NGOs and government. Teklewoini says, “NGOs exist because of government shortcomings. I lobby for more freedom for NGOs. All over the world, NGOs play an important, radical part in development, human rights and democracy. There is a challenge to you as important people in an international NGO. You get government funds from your governments. You must recognize that government bureaucracy prevents it getting to the grass roots. You facilitate the process of getting to the grass roots, as REST does here. This means that the grass roots can benefit. How can we get the same realization here? How can you help us?”

We cannot undermine Chris Mason’s authority as the manager of the work with them; and there are many issues to be worked out. But we can recognize that the transition to being an NGO is tough. Has it ever happened before on a similar scale? It seems that donors concerns are greater because of REST’s size. He will face challenges, and they will be tough ones. But the sorts of questions he is being asked are the same sorts of questions that are asked of Oxfam; in a sense, this is a sign of respect. It should not make him despair. Oxfam finds such questions tough. We haven't got all the answers. We are still struggling with them.

International Oxfams

Among the many international NGOs in town are a number of other Oxfams. These are CAA, Oxfam America, Oxfam Canada, Oxfam Hong Kong, and Oxfam Quebec, all of whom work here.  Brendan and I have dinner with them.

We talk more than they do. They see my being in town as an opportunity for them to find out what is happening with "big brother". The meeting was arranged by Chris Mason; he seems to have suggested that I can give them an insight into what our plans are. He might have told me!

I describe the rationale and headlines of the “Strategic Intent” which was developed by trustees and the management team earlier in the year to steer work up to 1999. It is the framework for all planning and is a step in moving Oxfam towards concentrating on what makes most difference to poverty wherever they work, rather than deciding what will be done mainly at grass roots level. The “Strategic Intent” includes unprecedented acceptance on the part of the founding Oxfam that it will give up some sovereignty to the family of Oxfams at large, in the interest of making more difference to poverty. This stimulates discussion of opportunities; some are enthusiastic about working more closely. But there are also anxieties; staff might lose some autonomy if priorities are decided for the organization at large.

We talk about the "Africa Make or Break" campaign. This is the first major campaign from Oxfam UK and Ireland since their difficulties with the Charity Commission over calls for sanctions on South Africa. There is strong endorsement for the quality of the campaign materials, the core document, and the lobbying initiatives. This is pleasing because campaigning messages need to be more joined up between family members as we grow closer together; not like the Narmada Dam campaigns I heard about earlier in the year in India.

Women in Tigray

The monument to victory over the Derg
 dominates Mekele today
Next day, Brendan and I meet leaders of the Democratic Association of Tigray Women. They, like REST, are struggling to become an NGO. At the end of the meeting they present us with a proposal for funding. Brendan encourages their work, but stresses the difficulties of changing to an NGO, and emphasizes that separation from government is important. He also says that they need to talk to Chris Mason about Oxfam funding. I am impressed by his diplomacy and tact.

Talking to these women, who all took part in the struggle against the Derg, gives insight into the way women’s lives changed in the war; even if there have been setbacks since.

They tell of Tigray’s long history of poverty. 90% of the population is rural, depending on subsistence farming and livestock. Drought and environmental degradation make them vulnerable to natural disaster. They don’t mention population growth as another influence.

“Haile Selassie neglected [Tigray] until 1975, and the Derg neglected us from 1975 until 1991. There was deliberate underdevelopment in this region by both, so there is little infrastructure. Roads are bad. Electricity is available to only a few. There are virtually no social services, with very limited health care and education.”

“In our society, the woman's role has been a very traditional one. It is a domestic role. It is inferior and submissive. There is a heavy workload including responsibility for food, family, water, and agricultural tasks such as grinding corn. For most people, fetching wood and water takes up to six hours a day. This takes much longer than it used to, because of deforestation. A woman's working day often starts at 4 a.m.”

“There was a highly feudal nature to traditional society. It was not unusual for seven-year-olds to be married. Women were not allowed to meet in public places. There were no economic options outside the household. There were frequent beatings of wives, often in public. Women were not allowed to initiate divorce. Divorce was something [only] the husband could do, because the wife was property. There was a theoretical right for women to have land ownership or tenure, but it was not observed in practice. There was and is a high mortality rate for mothers and children. Mother and childcare services were almost totally lacking.”

They tell of the TPLF struggle against Haile Selassie in 1975 and on through the Derg to 1991. From the start, the TPLF gave priority to women’s issues. Women fought in the war. By the early 1980s a third of the forces were women, both troops and officers. Some were involved in political activities. They were heavily involved in community mobilization. The Tigray Women Fighters Association became a pressure group for women's issues.

Women's rights remain difficult to deal with because traditional attitudes still apply; the inference is that there has been some rolling back of women’s status since the war. However, where women used to think problems were insuperable, they now see change as possible. Living and working with women in their communities, sharing, discussing and teaching about solutions has gradually changed attitudes.

Political representation on local councils (the Baitos) has increased, but political rights are not seen as enough. There must be social and economic rights as well. They work for redistribution of land to every adult; women having equal rights to inherit; and equality between faiths in a society which is 30% Muslim. There are new laws (sereets) enforced by judicial committees in every village, which give illegitimate children inheritance rights; give rights to stepchildren; establish a minimum marriage age of 15 – not ideal, but a significant change; make wife-beating illegal, although it is not eradicated; and return to divorcees property owned before marriage.

The changes in the war didn’t yield full democratic rights. But under the coalition which governed for the two years after the war a national charter secured basic human and democratic rights to freedom of speech; assembly, protest and demonstration; strike; no discrimination on grounds of nationality, religion or sex; and self-determination. The secession of Eritrea is cited as practical evidence that these rights are real.

There is a better environment for women's rights through peace and democracy. Peace means there is less risk of rape and murder; families are reunited; and risk of famine is less. Democracy means that women's rights are now in law; there is a Women's Bureau in the Prime Minister’s office; and a new national policy, ratified this month, defines women's rights to equality under the law; organize and protest; freedom from discrimination; full employment rights; equal pay for equal work; and entitled to maternity leave.

All this sounds positive, but they tell of continuing problems in health, education and livelihoods. They aim to build on the war initiatives of rural health centres, training of traditional midwives, training barefoot doctors, mother and child health care, and literacy. All were limited in the war and need further work. Priorities identified by women, and for which they seek support, are development of rural water sources; new grinding mills; expanded healthcare; education and training; and child care centres.

The Association has 17 years of experience, and a committed membership. But they acknowledge that their biggest problem is that while women are ready to commit their labour, they do not have the necessary skills. The organization has very limited resources for training.

As Brendan and I leave for Addis, I have much to ponder about the ongoing difficulties of building peace; about balancing the proper demands for accountability by donors with the practical difficulties of rebuilding after war; and about how difficult it is to move from being an active and partisan supporter of a cause to seeing all sides of arguments.