Humera Repatriation Report II (Part 1)

Humera Repatriation Report II (Part 1)


Returnees in Humera

PART ONE: Situation report

(Part 1)

Executive summary

This report is the second in a series submitted by Laura Hammond, a social anthropologist currently doing research on the integration of Tigrayan returnees into the Humera area of Tigray (Region 1). The larger study from which this information is drawn is concerned with the economic and political aspects of integration over a two year period (June 1993-June 1995). The first report, circulated in March 1994, provided an overview of the returnee situation in Humera. A summary of this information is provided in the introduction to this report.

The present report includes a brief situation update as well as an in-depth analysis of land tenure issues that concern the returnees. Findings show that the living conditions of the returnees have deteriorated dramatically in recent months. Widespread food insecurity is being reported in all three settlements. Breakdown in the main source of water for the largest settlement, Ada Bai, resulted in a water shortage emergency that persisted for one month. While steps are being taken to correct these problems, there is still a problem of coordination and communication among the various actors involved. This can be said to be the underlying cause of most of the problems. Immediate steps need to be taken to improve the situation.


Repatriation to the Humera area began in June 1993, with the arrival of an estimated 12,000 refugees from the Saffawa camp in eastern Sudan. The returnees were settled in three settlement areas outside the northwestern town of Humera. The largest settlement, Ada Bai, has a returnee population of 7,200; 2,200 returnees joined a local population of 720 in Mai Kadra; Rawayan was the smallest settlement with 2,600 returnees and only a small local population. In February 1994, 2,255 refugees were repatriated from Umrakoba camp and settled in Rawayan. (1) A separate section is included in this situation report on the status of the new Rawayan returnees.

When the repatriation operation was started, the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC) was the chief implementing organization for the entire returnee population. The Relief Society of Tigray (REST) provided medical supplies and monitoring services. Since January, assistance implementation and monitoring responsibilities have been split between the regional bureau of the RRC (the RRB) and REST. The RRB has responsibility for assistance to the original group of 12,000 returnees from Saffawa, and REST provides assistance to the new repatriants from Umrakoba. UNHCR, which has provided funding to both organizations for reintegration services, has opened a field office in Humera for monitoring and coordination purposes.

The first report in this series identified a problem of food scarcity as a result of widespread crop failure last year. Problems were also identified in the health sector related to inadequate facilities and lack of transport for referrals to Humera hospital. Since that time, studies have been conducted on the nutrition situation by UNICEF and the Ethiopian Nutritional Institute (ENI). Preliminary results of this study support the returnees' claim that there is widespread lack of food. (See section on Food Insecurity.)

Food insecurity

The most serious problem facing the returnees today is food shortage. In the last situation report, it was indicated that the returnees were eating their last quintal (100kgs) of sorghum that had been provided to them as part of a nine month package of food assistance. Due to widespread crop failure, most returnees had little or no grain from their harvest to supplement their stock. At the end of March, reports were received in Ada Bai of two people who died from lack of food. Both were adults in their twenties. Local leaders and neighbours say these individuals had not been ill previously. One man was said to have mixed the last of his sorghum with soil in order to make it last longer. He died after two days of this diet. During April at least two more adults were reported to have died in Ada Bai from lack of food. No deaths were reported in the other settlements, but returnees claim that people are cutting back on their work and are using methods of food preparation which require less grain (frying, roasting and soaking grains and pulses) in order to preserve what little food they have. They predict that unless food is delivered to the most needy soon, deaths will begin within a few weeks.

Returnee leaders in all three settlements say that they made a request for additional food to the RRB at the end of January. The RRB staff, which was in the process of closing down its operations in Humera (under the belief that self sufficiency had been reached), promised to communicate the request to the regional headquarters, but it appears that this was never done. No response was received.

In response to the deaths, the RRB arranged for the distribution of one month rations of 10 kg to 1,445 Ada Bai residents. Baitos (local councils) in each of the settlements were requested to assess the food situation and submit figures for those in immediate need, those who would be in need by June, and those who would have enough food to last them until the harvest. The baitos responded with a request for assistance for 10,372 beneficiaries (6,067 for Ada Bai, 2,229 for Rawayan, and 2,076 for Mai Kadra). Of this number, immediate need was assigned to 8,588 people (4,968 in Ada Bai, 1,660 in Rawayan, and 1,960 in Mai Kadra). This request was rejected by RRB in Mekelle who claimed that these figures were unrealistic based on previous (pre-harvest) information which suggested that self-sufficiency had been reached. Instead of the amount requested, a shipment of 600 quintals of grain was sent to provide one month's rations for 4,000 people (2,386 in Ada Bai, 732 in Rawayan and 882 in Mai Kadra). Local officials complained that they were being forced to deny food to people who were just as needy as those who did receive relief food. Appeals were made to the RRB to reconsider its commitment to providing food to the returnees, but no decision had been reached as of April 21, when the research for this report was finished.

Water supply

Water scarcity is a major issue in all of the settlements, but is most severe in Ada Bai. On 23 March the pump at the only borehole in to the community broke down. Repair service was not available, reportedly because when the RRB closed down its relief operation in Humera in January it did not assign responsibility for service and maintenance of the boreholes to a suitable agent. Instead, it gave these tasks to the communities themselves, who have neither the expertise nor the resources to cope with mechanical maintenance and repairs. While a procedure for fixing the pump was being worked out in the regional capital, UNHCR assigned a tanker to deliver 20,000 liters of water a day to Ada Bai. The tanker developed technical problems during the operation and on several days no clean water was available to the community at all. Even when service was running smoothly, each returnee received less than 3 litres of water a day. To supplement the supply, people collected contaminated water and added it to the same containers as the clean water. All water was thus rendered unsafe for drinking. The pump was repaired and put back into service in mid April, but it is not clear whether a procedure has been established to handle future mechanical breakdowns.

In the absence of pumped or tankered water, Ada Bai residents took water from several contaminated and nearly dry wells. Women slept in queues next to the nearest wells in order to get water in the morning. Many people paid boys with donkeys to fetch water by digging in the sand in a dry river bed three hours' walk away. A UNHCR assessment team visiting the settlement declared the water people were using to be unpotable. The people themselves stopped using one of the wells when worms were found at the bottom of it.

During this period, the incidence of diarrhoea increased significantly, particularly among children. Health statistics from the clinic have not yet been consulted, but many cases of children under 5 who were dying of diarrhoeal disease and malnutrition were observed during April.

In Rawayan and Mai Kadra, water supplies are said to be insufficient. In Rawayan there is sufficient water supply but not enough taps for distribution. Women wait in the queue for up to six hours each day to get water. Mai Kadra women reported that the water is unpredictable, and that if they get water one day the well may be dry the next day. Women report that rather than waiting for water from the boreholes, they go to the contaminated wells.


Several studies have been launched recently to investigate the health and nutritional status of the returnee population. A team consisting of staff from UNHCR, UNICEF, WFP and ENI conducted a short multi-sectoral assessment. UNHCR reported cases of Vitamin A deficiency (night blindness and Bitot spot) and anaemia. It was recommended that ENI undertake a comprehensive assessment of nutrition, to be used in line with the National Nutrition Study. ENI conducted this assessment in late April. It consisted of anthropometric measurements, biochemical analysis of blood samples for evidence of micronutrient deficiencies, as well as consideration of clinic and hospital health records and socio- economic information. UNICEF also conducted a rapid anthropometric study (weight for height), which found high rates of acute protein energy malnutrition. The full results of both of these studies are expected to be released soon.

In addition to the health threats posed by impure water and food shortage, there is a serious problem with coordination of health services between the settlement clinics and the Humera hospital. Clinics do not pass their reporting of medical supplies and drug consumptions to the hospital. Drug supplies were found by the UNHCR assessment team to be adequate but their management was lacking, making detection of drug misuse and wastage difficult.


Sanitation facilities are lacking in all three settlements. In Ada Bai, roughly one half of the population were obliged to move their houses approximately two kilometres out of a mosquito-breeding area. No private or communal latrines have been built in the new residential area. UNICEF has tried to launch a latrine-building campaign by training the CHAs and TBAs, but its success appears to be limited.


Land was distributed to all returnees at the end of April. There had been a problem last year with land allocated to returnees being too far from the communities for effective farming to be practiced (in some cases land was located up to 50 km away). Problems persist in that the land that has been allocated this year is all uncleared, and the returnees say that if the rains begin on time, they will not have enough time to clear the land. (For more information about land see the accompanying report on land tenure.)


Baitos in all of the communities have elected officials to be in charge of education. UNHCR has committed funds to the construction of schools in each of the settlements (presently only Mai Kadra has a school), but as yet construction has not started and it seems unlikely that any educational facilities will be made available this year.

Market and wage labour

Humera has traditionally served as a source of off-season employment for men from the highlands. It was thought that many of the returnees would be able to support themselves with wages from the large sesame, cotton and sorghum farms. This has turned out not to be the case. Returnees say they would rather work on their own land during the agricultural season than work for wages in Humera. If they need access to cash, they go to Sudan to work on the irrigated fields, where they say they can get work year-round. This is a source of consternation for some agencies involved in the repatriation operation, who interpret reports of people returning to Sudan as cases of permanent desertion of the repatriation settlements. Interviews with returnees indicate that those who return to Sudan do so for employment only, leaving their families in the settlements in Ethiopia, and planning to return after a few months. I have received no reports of people moving back into the refugee camps in Sudan or migrating for the purposes of collecting food aid. Migration to Sudan for employment and trade is merely a survival strategy employed by this emerging border culture.

Rawayan returnees

Two months have passed since the new group of 2,200 returnees were repatriated to Rawayan. Problems with medical supplies appear to have been solved. Food distribution has taken place so that people now have enough food to get them through the rainy season. Construction of houses is taking place slowly, as many people do not have money to buy the necessary materials for construction. In Rawayan many people are building houses out of mud, as the soil is more conducive to brick making than in the other two settlements. People reported selling their gold jewelry and such items as tape recorders (bought in the Sudan) to finance the building of their houses.

There are still approximately 20 families living under the shelter that was made to receive the returnees. They are for the most part female-headed households, elderly people, or the infirm. They claim that they are unable to build their houses without assistance and that as everyone is busy building their own houses they cannot find anyone to help them. Building poles were given to the vulnerable groups, but they say that they cannot afford to buy the other materials necessary to build the house and are too weak to do the actual building. The communal shelter is falling down around them. No arrangements have been made to provide building services for them.

The division of responsibilities between REST and the RRB for assistance to new and old Rawayan returnees (respectively) has been duplicated in the social relations between the two groups. The new returnees report that they have very little if any contact with the returnees who were already in Rawayan. They say that as they had been living in the Sudan in different refugee camps, they have little in common with each other. Those who came last year harbour some degree of resentment towards the new returnees because large amounts of food aid are being given to the latter while the former are experiencing extreme food shortage.

Demographic breakdown of new returnees to Rawayan

Age group 0-5 6-16 17-50 > 50 Total

Male 10.39% 13.14% 28.23% 4.47% 56.23% Female 9.80% 12.20% 19.24% 2.53% 43.77%

(Compiled from UNHCR Voluntary Repatriation Forms, March 1994)


Returnees, local farmers and big business: The politics of land allocation in Humera, Ethiopia

Despite the Transitional Government of Ethiopia's decision to postpone formulation of a policy on land tenure until after the election of a popularly supported government, all land transfer has not been brought to a complete standstill. In Humera, the absence of a formal land tenure policy has resulted in the development of an informal, unwritten policy which this year will direct the allocations of land to at least 35 new medium- and large-scale investors as well as to approximately 14,000 former refugees who were repatriated to the Humera area in 1993 and 1994.

This case study illustrates first, how allocations made in the absence of a formal policy can set precedents which in effect form the foundation of any policy that is to follow. Second, it shows how land distribution priorities have contributed to a situation in which investors are sending cash crops of sorghum and sesame out of the area while aid officials are sending relief grain into the area to respond to the widespread food insecurity that threatens the lives of an estimated 10,000 returnees. Before a single seed has been sown, the conditions have been set to insure that self- sufficiency will not be attainable in the next year. Food aid will have to be requested yet again, while grain surpluses will continue to be sent by truck out of the area for distant domestic and foreign markets.


Humera wereda is located in the far north-western corner of Ethiopia. It is bordered to the north by the Tekezze River and Eritrea, and to the west by the Sudan. It is a lowland area 640 metres above sea level, with temperatures ranging from 40-45 degrees centigrade. It has one rainy season, from June to September. For a good part of the year it is inaccessible by road except through Asmara: the bridge over the Tekezze River on the road to Mekelle was destroyed during the war making travel between the months of June and December impossible. The road to Gondar is similarly impassable during the rainy season.

Humera has been a farming centre for many years. Before the Dergue took over, most of the land was owned by large landholders. Workers from Tigray, Gondar and the Sudan came to work for wages in the fertile sesame, sorghum and cotton fields. Indeed, labour migration from the highlands has long been an important survival strategy in times of food insecurity. When the Dergue overthrew the imperial regime of Haile Selassie, it placed all land under state ownership. The large landowners left the area and the Dergue set up its own state farms. These farms were never very successful, largely due to heavy fighting in the area, inefficient management and lack of popular support for collectivized farming. Large stretches of land therefore sat idle for two decades.

The population of the wereda is a fairly even mix of Amharic and Tigrinya speakers. Until 1991, Humera was part of the administrative region of Gondar. With the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) takeover, however, the western border of Tigray (or Region One) was extended to the Sudan and it now incorporates Humera. One result of annexing this woreda, which has a relatively small permanent resident population of approximately 30,000, as part of Region One was that it had become possible to resettle returned Tigrayan refugees. It was also envisioned that population pressure in the eastern and central highlands of the region could be reduced by inducing people to relocate to the lowlands.

In attempting to serve these objectives, as well as to facilitate the return of mechanized cash crop farming in the area, the wereda and region are presented with an unenviable task. They have no policy to guide them and no assurance that the steps they take this year will not be annulled by the national land tenure policy when it is finally formulated. In addition, there is a lack of up to date information on land holdings and use. The last comprehensive land use study was done in 1974 and many of the records on investments prior to and during the Dergue's regime were destroyed during the war. (2) In March 1994, a survey of current numbers and sizes of investment holdings was completed. The Tigray Development Association is presently conducting a comprehensive land use study which should provide recommendations for improving land allocation and agricultural practices. The findings of this study have not been released and may not be circulated outside the regional government, which commissioned the study.

A 1974 land use study for Humera reported that the wereda had 780,000 hectares in total. 304,120 hectares of that was cultivated land, and 117,000 hectares was not cultivated but was considered arable. (3) Redistricting has decreased the size of the wereda since then, but the amount is not known. The March 1994 land use survey tries to determine how much land is held by investors and local people, but does not tackle the larger questions of the total availability of land for distribution in the wereda and the supply of such resources as building wood and water for potential settlers. It has generally been believed that land in Humera wereda is abundant, almost inexhaustible. This has created a sense of false security that officials are only now beginning to realize and regret.

Allocation to investors

Many of the investors who lost their land to the Dergue went to Sudan to farm and came back to Ethiopia when the EPRDF came to power. Last year, 165 investors cultivated a total of approximately 50,000 hectares. The size of each holding ranged from 80 to 1,600 hectares, with the exception of the largest landholder, the Hiwot company, which holds approximately 10,000 hectares. The local Ministry of Agriculture reports that most investors are individuals or companies who owned land in the Humera area during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie.

In place of a land policy, officials are using an investment policy to guide their decisions about allocation of land. (4) This policy allows for the allocation of land to investors on a lease basis for a period of twenty years. Land is being leased to investors this year at a rate of Birr 20 per hectare per year, a 100% increase over last year's rate. The investment policy requires investors to have at least Birr 1,200 in capital for each hectare that they apply for. The wereda can approve applications with up to Birr 101,000 in capital, or approximately 80 hectares. The administration in Mekelle approves applications for Birr 101,000 to 250,000 in capital, or approximately 160 hectares.

Investors who have capital of more than Birr 250,000 must apply for an Investment Certificate from the Investment Office in Addis Ababa. This certificate qualifies them for tax free import and export privileges, access to hard currency and foreign currency accounts, a three year exemption from income taxes, and possibilities for claiming tax deductions for research and training. (4) Because the Investment Office acts as a guarantor for their investments, their claim on the land they lease from the region is also made more secure, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. This year, thirty new investors have applied for holdings for up to 160 hectares, and three have gone to Addis Ababa to apply for investment certificates. All of these applications have been accepted, though the wereda and region are waiting to make the actual distributions until land has been given to the returnees.

At this point, it appears that the main source of land is government owned. Land rental and sharecropping are common on a small scale, but the large size of the landholding sought by investors and the small size of land being offered by small farmers prevents the development of a significant private land market.

Those investors who do not have the capital available to invest in the land must borrow. According to the local bank manager most of the farmers, with the exception of the very wealthy, must take out loans. The local Farmers' Association lends money to shareholders for up to ten times the value of the investor's shares. Most farmers "borrow" privately from either the Hiwot or Guna companies. Guna is a purchasing company which produces none of its own sesame or sorghum, but buys from smaller farmers. Investors agree to repay their loans in kind, at the prices set by the companies. Investors complain that if they use the products of their harvest to repay their loans they are effectively selling their grain for a lower price. Some investors report that they refused to sell at Hiwot's low prices and sold to others, paying back their loans in cash instead. Many others, however, complain that there is not enough competition in the Humera market, so if they want to sell their sesame they have to sell at the prices set by the monopoly.

As medium-scale farmers must pay their debts before they begin preparations for the next season, most sell all of their harvest by November or December. During 1993, the price of sesame during the last two months was Birr 130-140 per quintal (100kgs). By April 1994 the price had risen to Birr 220 per quintal. Similarly, sorghum was selling for Birr 30-40 per quintal in November and December but rose to 90 birr by April. Those investors who can afford to keep their sesame or sorghum in storage can make a big profit, but of course it is only the wealthiest farmers who are able to benefit.

This year is considered to be a poor year because of a decrease in the market. Investors report that the 1992 harvest sold for Birr 210 per quintal in November and December, and for Birr 250 in April.