It takes us ninety minutes to traverse the 54 kilometres to Kole, and by the time we get there there’s nothing shiny about our two Land Cruisers. The plume of orange dust that’s been chasing our wakes rests in a fine silt over every available surface. There’s not much shiny about us, either, the feeble efforts of the rattling air-conditioning doing little to counter the burn of the desert sun through the windows. We’ve been bracing against the bucking vehicle the whole way, and are sweating and achey.
We pass through the village in moments. It’s little more than a collection of mud huts at a bend in the track. Set back from the river, the land around it is more rock than soil, scorched like an overexposed photograph. Villagers gather at a public tap-stand with jerry-cans and donkey carts, the ground dark with the stain of their labour. Another k or so up the broken roadway, and the drivers haul us off to the left across open terrain.
At the bottom of a steep outcrop, we stop. When the engines die, it’s a tangible relief. We clamber up the rocks, careful of our footing. It’s myself, a couple of my team leaders from down here, and our guests- VIPs from one of our donor offices. There are eight or nine of us all up. At the top of the rise we perch on a small space pretty much shoulder-to-shoulder and survey the land around us.
In the middle distance we can see the line of the river, marked by a strip of dusty green, dark against the rest of the scenery. This side of the road, shoulders of raised rock- the remnants of an eroded plateau several hundred feet high- serve as two arms demarcating the edge of our little vista. They are treeless save for a few bushes stubborn in their refusal to wither. In the flat ground between them, the terrain is broken- flat-topped trees, thorny thickets, patches of sand, and a lot of orange-brown rock. A wadi snakes around the bottom of the outcrop and wends its way towards the river several miles away, the only source of any green nearby. The tops of termite mounds, eight and ten feet tall, emerge from among woody growth. With the engines stopped, when conversation lulls, the only sound is the wind. The sun makes the sun tingle with latent threat, even this late in the afternoon. Even with my darker complexion I know I’ll burn within thirty minutes out here.
A month from now, this- Bahale- will be the newest refugee camp in the Dolo Ado complex.
Dolo Ado, a series of small pastoral communities in a southeastern corner of Ethiopia bordering Somalia and Kenya, first started taking refugees in 2009. It was in 2011, however, that it came to the attention of the world as hundreds of thousands of Somalis fled a combination of civil war and famine, seeking shelter here and, more prominently, in Dolo Ado’s Kenyan cousin, Dadaab.
Never subject to the massive influx of Dadaab (which at its peak was thought to have well over half a million refugees), Dolo Ado’s camp population has risen to a more manageable figure of around 180,000. Nonetheless, with an offensive in south-central Somalia to overcome al Shabaab militants, the encroaching dry season, and the continued closure of Dadaab and the Kenyan border to new Somali arrivals, December 2012 saw one of the camp’s busiest months for over a year, registering more than 6,000 new refugees. Currently between 150-200 Somalis are arriving each day.
Dolo Ado is in Ethiopia’s Somali Region, and as the name suggests, it’s more Somalia than Ethiopia in many ways. It is vast- over a third of Ethiopia’s land area- and underpopulated- just 6% of the population. Dolo Ado is one of the most remote points in the country; even accessing the regional capital Jijiga is a six hundred kilometre trip on poor roads. Air access is granted to aid workers via a five-day-a-week flight operated by the United Nations Humantarian Aid Service. A twice-weekly Antonov-26 from Dire Dawa flown by a squad of Russian pilots bringing a precious cargo of qat is the only commercial service operating here. It’s two days of committed driving by four-by-four from Addis- far longer by bus. Insurgent groups ply the bush further north, the legacy of decades of disatisfaction with Ethiopian rule and a failed Somali invasion in the 1970s.
It’s the details, not the context, that highlight the Ethiopian link in Dolo Ado town. The government administrators, Amharic-speaking and ethnically distinct from the Somali majority. The round, tin-roofed Orthodox church on the edge of town that stubbornly blares Friday morning prayers over the surrounding populace, as though at tacit war with the mosques. License-plates scribbled with hand-drawn Ge’ez script, evidence of the vehicles driven over the border illegally and registered with the grudging acceptance of an administration that knows there are some battles it can’t win.
Other battles, though, it is fighting harder. The Ethiopian military essentially controls a 70-kilometre band of Somalia inland from the border, implicitly annexed to shore up its own frontier from incursions by al Shabaab and other armed groups that aim to destabilize their longstanding enemy. We visit the border, a couple of k’s outside town. A dusty road leaves town via the rubbish-dump, where a healthy crop of plastic bags adorns the briars and hooks of the thorn-fencing of nearby properties. Evil-looking storks, tall as my shoulder with beaks as long as my forearm, stand watch by the dozen over the waste like vultures on a battleground. Their bald red heads are topped by a tuft of fine hair, and they glare menacingly at anything passing them by.
The border is active. A stream of donkey carts pours up the track from among the trees, bringing merchandise into Dolo Ado from the Somali side. However fragile the government might be, capitalism is alive and thriving despite the war, and doing a better job of servicing Dolo Ado’s needs than the Ethiopian economy, by the looks of things. In front of the final checkpoint (a stack of hescoes- large earth-filled sacks- manned by a bored-looking soldier and a male and female guard with a metal-detector wand) taxis wait beneath the trees to transport people to the village. We see one with a shattered windshield, the glass punched out in front of the steering-wheel so the driver can see. People come across in small clusters, family groups. I see a weary looking woman, two older children ahead of her, two small boys behind. One, barefoot, carries four empty jerrycans over his shoulders as he walks in their footsteps.
The guard at the checkpoint stops us. It takes ten minutes to talk our way past him and his commander. We watch life slip past, mostly boys driving more donkey-carts, loaded with everything from fodder to iron rods, from truck tires to plastic drums. A man has a monkey. It sits in the dirt by his feet, and whenever he moves it jumps up and seizes his lower leg, riding his foot like a kid on a merry-go-round as he walks around. It mouths at its surroundings with big wide eyes, looking for all the world like an anxious, overly-attached toddler. I keep my distance. I don’t want to find out if my medical plan covers ‘monkey bite’.
Dolo Ado is seperated from Dolo-Somalia by a shallow river, brown in colour where it seeps under a steel tressle-bridge. We wander over onto the Somali side of the bridge before security good-naturedly stops us from going further. Boys bathe in the water and come running up unselfconciously beneath the bridge to wave and get our attention. A couple of days later, we’ll be back to try and arrange a meeting with our staff on the Somali side of the border and discuss how to support one another, but will be thwarted by bureaucracy. The Ethiopians are highly protective of their borders.
We visit the reception centre, a refugee’s first port of call. Knots of women and children, mostly, gather in restless groups, finding shade from the sun beneath wood-frame lean-tos with galvanized zinc sheet roofing. In different sections of the centre, their names are recorded and checked against databases, then fingerprinted on a digital scanner and issued a wristband that identifies them as refugees. I see a small boy- no more than four- with one of these near-indestructable tags wrapped around his tiny arm and I wonder how that must feel. I find the things irritating after a single evening at a club or concert, but now his very identity- his rights to shelter, food, water, healthcare and education- are tied inextricably to a plastic strap on his wrist. For some reason, the indignity strikes a deep chord with me. Later they will receive the ration cards which indicate which days they’re supposed to attend food distributions, how many Core Relief Item distributions they’ve received, and so forth. A help-desk sits in one corner to support children who come across on their own, without an adult family member to support them.
Our compound is not dissimilar to many others I’ve now stayed in. In an area a couple of football fields in size, it’s got a set of portacabins for offices, another set for accomodation, a communal dining hall, and some cement latrine and shower blocks. It’s rudimentary but workable. It has a stark, barren feel during the height of the day. Although January is not the hottest of months here, it’s easily forty degrees and more in the early afternoon, and the sun is fierce enough that it’s unpleasant to cross the compound without a hat on. Around lunchtime, the generator is killed for part of the afternoon to save power and stop it overheating, and staff take a nap for an hour or so until the heat subsides. I find the intensity of both silence and heat a heady blend, and enjoy sitting in the shade for a while, watching the sunlight burn off the crushed rock and soaking in the stillness. When I try and nap, sweat gathers beneath me, wetting my mattress, and shines slick in every fold of skin. I drink litres of water each day.
Buramino is the newest of the five established camps. We visit child nutrition programs, alternative learning centres and a new primary school, and interview refugee families. I take myself away from the drama of the trip and walk out into the middle of the camp. It’s arranged into blocks, which in turn should reflect community dynamics, although this isn’t always possible. Each block is separated by a large open strip of land, which should allow for drainage, and also for latrine and shower-block construction slightly away from dwellings. The dwellings themselves vary, some with tin roofs and square adobe-mud walls, others built around metal rod frames provided by implementing partners, others still more in the traditional Somali style, dome-shaped over a frame of sticks tied together and clearly initiated by the refugees themselves. Some are an odd hybrid of several styles, and the only common demoninator linking all buildings are the blue-on-white UNHCR tents that have been incorporated into each structure.
It’s crushingly hot. There’s no electricity out here, and in the absence of vehicle engines and generators, oddly quiet for a town of 35,000 crowded into an area that could be measured in football fields. The wind is a constant. A donkey brays, a plaintive, distressed sound. I watch women in colourful headscarfs cross the dusty spillway, gusts tugging at loose material. It’s mid-afternoon. At any one time I can see three or four dust-devils spiralling amidst the camp. Vortices, mini-tornadoes formed by the rapid heating and rising of air, they roll over the landscape, briefly engulfing tents and refugees alike with a swirling tube of roiling dust, before moving on with little trace of their passing except a fresh layer of settled silt, like powder snow. Sometimes when the wind blows, it rolls out a sheet of dust before it, obscuring the camp behind a hazy orange veil and staining the horizon for minutes at a time.
Our visiting VIP is interviewing refugees. The whole thing feels a bit of a circus, and I keep my distance, but also recognize this is part of the process of convicing people to push money the way of these refugees who desperately need it. So with my team we put in guidelines to keep it as respectful as possible, and I step out of the way. He comes out from the last interview and does a final piece-to-camera describing his experiences in the camp. I watch him from the back seat of the Cruiser and let him do his thing. He’s a life-long businessman, a former highly-powered CEO and high-flier used to dining with ministers and Presidents. I watch as his face crumples and he bursts into tears and has to break off the interview. He turns away for a couple of minutes, regains composure, and starts over. Fifteen seconds later he’s sobbing. When he climbs onto the seat next to me afterwards, he’s subdued for some time. I find myself wondering when all this stopped touching me emotionally, and whether that’s something that should bother me.
We drop our visitors at the airport in time for the mid-week UNHAS flight, while I stay on to work with the team. Meles Zenawi International Airport is the grandest name for a strip of gravel ever devised. The waiting area, newly refurbished, is a WFP rubbhall with the sides rolled up. Bags are thrown into the back of a waiting pickup, passenger names ticked off against a computer printout, and the passengers themselves settle back to wait for touch-down.
It’s a scene essential to any remote but active relief hub, and the flight is a game in aid worker cliches. It’s logo’d Land Cruisers lined up just beyond the earthen berm, and similarly logo’d expats and local staff milling around beneath the shade, all sat-phones and VHF handsets. There’s Crusty Old Bad-Tempered Aid Worker swearing alernatively down his handset at some driver who’s forgotten to bring something he needed, and at the local WFP staff inconveniently wanting to check his bags; Skinny, Weathered Gallic Aid Worker with VHF hanging from her fishermans pants, in ethnic sandals, an NGO t-shirt and a headscarf, talking nonchalantly with her local counterpart; Heavily Branded American NGO Team, standing awkwardly to one side; Frantic UN Agency Coordinator, with UN ID card flapping, a VHF in one hand and a satphone in another, trying to manage too many staff and agencies at one time; it’s like a SEAWL post all by itself.
The nights are hot and breathless. The generator goes off by nine, its tiresome rattle replaced by a deep quiet. A full moon lights the compound as well as any spotlight, casting deep shadows. I relish the embrace of warm air in the absence of the aggressive sun. When I cross the compound to brush my teeth, I keep a wary lookout for scorpions. Apparently the local staff caught a whopper two weeks ago.
My mosquito net has been poorly fixed, and although I usually like sleeping under the things, I have to drape this one over me like a blanket- neither effective nor cooling. I sleep without sheets until around five-thirty in the morning, when the air finally cools enough to chill my skin- a relief. The cold shower I take when I rise with the sun at half-six is at first bracing, then deliciously refreshing. The low sun casts long shadows over the open ground. Mornings, before the heat of the day sets in, are a beautiful time in the desert.
One night, I inadvertantly leave my eye-mask facing down when I spray the [highly potent] insecticide around my room before bed. Woken at 3am, I fail to equate the burning sensation over my eyes with the mask, and it’s not until dawn that I finally realise I’ve had toxic chemicals pressed against my face all night. My skin burns until the early afternoon, and I half expect to find epidermis sloughing off when I check myself in the mirror.
Early morning, and a pall of smoke and dust hangs in a breathless blue haze over Dolo Ado town. Minarets and cell-phone towers protrude, fitting landmarks of this frontier outpost. Heading back for the border we drive into the rising sun, misty and opaque where it drifts in the murk. Scraps of torn plastic festoon the thorn trees in an oddly joyous display, gleaming in the sunrise with celebratory fervour. We pass the rubbish dump, the storks ominous sentries. Boys race their empty donkey-carts across the flat, putting up plumes of dust that hang in the air, a canvas for the shafts of split sunlight. When we eventually draw up and kill the engines, the air is cool, and irridescent weaver-birds flit among the thorny branches, plumage shimmering in the low sunbeams. The first of the day’s refugees begin their journey into Ethiopia and a new life to the eager chippering of birdsong alongside now-laden carts pulled by protesting asses.
From ten thousand feet, I watch the camp complex slip below me as the UNHAS Dash-8, flight UN47W, follows the road north and west, back towards Addis. I recognize Buramino- I identify it from the layout of our project sites that I can see on the outskirst of the grid of huts, so much more ordered than the host communities- then follow the road along. Eventually I spot Kole in its bend in the track, and the river, and then the Bahale camp site- still just a near-empty plot of scrubland- right down to the outcrop of rock we stood on to survey the ground. Two months from now, this patch of desert will look like the other five sites. Shelters in neat rows, clustered in blocks, seperated by wide stretches of open ground and punctuated by NGO compounds and project sites. Deceptively ordered, from ten thousand feet. Deceptively clean.
You can’t feel the heat up here. Can’t taste the grit that blows between your teeth, or smell the stench of full latrines, or make out the heaps of disused relief packaging collecting at the edge of compounds. Can’t see the shelters wrapped over with mosquito netting, or the ones that have fallen down completely. Can’t sense the intense thirst beneath that unquenchable sun, or the fatigue that accompanies the mid-afternoon zenith. Don’t need to brace against a sudden squall of hot wind that grinds dust into the eyes, or answer the questioning gaze of young children against whom the world has stacked unfathomable odds. Can’t hear the stories that can make a grown man break down in tears. No, from ten thousand feet, it all feels rather hopeful.