Communities members in a meeting. Credit: Tomás Abella/ Oxfam
Communities members in a meeting

Ethiopia: A bridge to peace

A newly formed Peace Committee helps end the violence that forced thousands of people from their homes in southern Ethiopia.

In August 2006, ethnic fighting in the lowlands of the Borena and Guji Zones in Oromia Regional State of Ethiopia got to such a bad state that it displaced more than 3,000 households from seven locations. With the assistance of Oxfam America and the Borena-Guji branch of the Ethiopian Red Cross Society, not only have the majority of people returned to their homes, but they can now expect peace long into the future.

The agreement, reached during a peace conference among the Borena, Guji, and Gebra in April, settles for good the recent crimes they committed against each other and lays the groundwork for punishing future offenses and settling disputes.

Erosion of the Old Ways

In the Borena and Guji Zones near Ethiopia’s border with Kenya, herding is the main means people have of making a living – a lifestyle in which they move their animals in search of pasture and water. Although most of the people in this area share the same background and culture, they are divided along ancestral lines.

Each of the different clans has its own system of governing which is adept at solving disputes and punishing crimes within that particular clan. The problem is that the only justice for a person who has had property stolen from him or a family member killed by someone from a different clan is to take matters into his own hands. In an area where guns are everywhere, retaliation has the potential to get very ugly—and it has.

In early 2006 a series of killings and retaliations brought on by scarce resources and cattle theft sparked separate conflicts between multiple clans in the area. By August, thousands of people had fled their homes in search of safer territory after losing much of what they owned.

A Solution is Found

With support from Oxfam America, the Ethiopian Red Cross Society, or ERCS, set up a conference in Alona village which brought together the Borena, Guji, and Gebra—the clans responsible for a great deal of the conflict.

The committee reached a few key agreements to bring an immediate end to the violence. The most important of these was that people should not ask for compensation for what had been done to them in the past, and a repayment system was set up for future inter-clan killings and robberies in order to prevent retaliation.

Across the River to Darmee

When we arrived at the village, we were quickly ushered towards the banks of the Mormora River. There, spanning the river, was what the villagers referred to as a bridge—a couple of steel cables, with some sticks tied between them, running 130 feet across the water.

The meeting took place in the shade of trees in an empty school yard. Soon, everyone had turned their attention to the fate of families displaced by the earlier violence.

A lively discussion took place between members of the Peace Committee, government officials, and those whose futures were being discussed. In the end, the displaced people agreed to return to their lands.

However, they still remained adamant that something needed to be done about the bridge and the shortage of clean water which has led to outbreaks of waterborne diseases. They said that with better access to each other the Borena and Guji would act more like brothers and would not resort to violence in the future.