Page last updated at 01:14 GMT, Friday, 13 March 2009

Water pipe sparks Ethiopian conflict

Borana tribesman holding a gun

Some 70,000 people have fled their homes in a remote part of southern Ethiopia, after a deadly conflict broke out between rival groups - apparently triggered by the construction of a new borehole. The BBC's Elizabeth Blunt has been to visit the affected areas.

Wamo Boru and his family used to live in Kafa, one of the many small ethnic Borana communities scattered across the arid borderlands of southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya.

The hard red earth shows through the thin grass of the sun-baked landscape, a wide expanse of thorny scrub, flat-topped thorn-trees and tall red anthills.

The Borana lead a hard life, especially in the past year or two, when rains have been poor.

But the community had its livestock - cattle and camels and goats - and was expecting to have a better water supply when the Oromia regional government finished work on a new borehole in the area.

But at the beginning of February they had - quite literally - a rude awakening.

Mohamed Nur
In past conflicts, communities would fight, but they wouldn't destroy government property
Mohamed Nur
Emergency official
"It was nine o'clock at night, we were sleeping when we were fired at," said Wamo.

"We just had to jump from our sleep and protect ourselves. Because it was night, we didn't see who was attacking us, but we think they were the people called Gherri from Somali regional state.

"They came on foot, without vehicles, but they had bombs and missile launchers, and at that time we didn't have guns, only sticks to defend ourselves."

Wamo, his family and neighbours fled with just the clothes they stood up in.

They managed to bring some of their stronger livestock with them, but they had to leave the weaker ones behind to be taken by the raiders.

Now they are camped close to the dirt road that runs east from Yabelo, the administrative headquarters of Ethiopia's Borana zone.

Wareba, the village teacher, is there too; he lost one of his in-laws in the raid.

"This was a war no-one was prepared for," he says.

"That was how the Somalis could come and destroy so much."

The children he used to teach are scattered across the area, and, he says, "not in good condition".

Wamo says three members of their community died during the attack, another seven were badly injured.

Their community is now just another group of displaced people - 2,000 of them among nearly 70,000 estimated to have been driven from their homes by the fighting.


This part of Ethiopia has a long history of conflict, cattle raiding and fights over water and grazing among its various pastoral communities.

But this, says Wamo, was different from other wars.

Guyo Halake Liban
The Somalis are problematic people - they are always pushing us
Guyo Halake Liban
Borana politician

"They came and fought us at night," he says. "It was not a warrior-like war."

He attributes the attack to jealousy over the scheme to dig a new borehole.

"They didn't want us to live well, and water is very important to us, so they attacked our water source."

The emergency-response officer from the local administration, Mohamed Nur, agrees that it was an unusual conflict.

"This went to a very large scale," he said.

"It affected a huge number of people from both sides. In past conflicts, communities would fight, but they wouldn't destroy government property, like the drilling rig."

An attack on the new borehole may have started the fighting, but the causes are deep rooted.

The water scheme was close to the dividing line between two of Ethiopia's ethnically-based regional states - Oromia and Somali regions - a boundary which has never been properly demarcated.

The Oromo regional government thought it was drilling the borehole on its own territory; people in Somali region thought it was on their side of the boundary.

When Somalis destroyed the rig, the Borana mobilised to take revenge, angry at what they saw as years of Somali encroachment.

"The Somalis are problematic people," said one Borana politician from the Moyale area, Guyo Halake Liban.

"They are always pushing us. It's as if I give you a place to pitch your tent and the following morning you are telling me to leave; the Borana are not accepting that.

"These people have pushed the Borana from very, very far places. I don't think the Borana are willing to move an inch from where they are any more."

Stockpiling weapons

Like all pastoralists in this part of the world, Borana men habitually go armed to defend their flocks.

When they fought back, there were pitched battles in the area. More than 300 people are thought to have died.

Humanitarian workers like Mohamed Nur are now dealing with the consequences.

Young Borana children

The first priority, he says, is food and shelter for the displaced - the people from Kafa say they are living mostly on water and sweet milkless tea.

Following that, he says there has to be agreement between members of the two rival communities, and between the two regional governments.

At the moment the fighting seems to have stopped.

But there are reports that both Borana and Somalis have been stockpiling weapons in an area about 100km (62 miles) east of where Wamo Boru and his family are camped, with a force of Ethiopia's paramilitary federal police positioned in between the two sides.

Many of the displaced have had their villages destroyed or lost all their livestock to the attackers.

In areas near the border, some of those stolen animals have probably been taken across into Kenya, which will make it even more difficult to get them back.

And until there is some guarantee of peace, Wamo and his family and neighbours are not going to be able to go back home.

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