As Ethiopia descends into civil war, civilians are caught in the crossfire

L.A. Times

Refugees from the Tigray region of Ethiopia wait to register at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Hamdayet, Sudan, on Nov. 14.(Marwan Ali / Associated Press)

NAIROBI, Kenya — The call from Ethiopia’s capital was grim. Four hundred and fifty miles north in the region of Tigray, Hiwot Araya’s hometown was about to be besieged.

The regional government — the Tigray People’s Liberation Front — had placed a tank outside the city, camouflaged in green. Ten buses had arrived to bus residents of Tigrayan ethnicity to safety, leaving thousands of worried residents behind.

If the man’s reports are true, “the government from Tigray is planning to burn the whole city today,” Hiwot told the Los Angeles Times. Rumors from the war zone are impossible to independently confirm. But Hiwot, a 31-year-old mother of two who fled to neighboring Kenya after her husband was killed by the TPLF four years ago, said she fears a similar fate could befall her uncle, her aunt and millions of others who find themselves caught in the crossfire in an emerging civil war between Ethiopia’s military and a well-armed adversary.

Read the full feature story at the Los Angeles Times. Reporting for this article was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Guns, Grass, and Cattle

Roads & Kingdoms

Cornelius said the drive to Arabal would take an hour, but it’s been more like three. Already a full day’s journey from Nairobi, we chanced that by dark we could reach the Arabal river and make it back to the town of Marigat to sleep. But now the sun is inching westward and our car is running out of gas.

This isn’t a place you want to be stranded for the night. Baringo County is in the midst of a war over livestock. A severe drought has forced Pokot herders to drive their cows and goats from the dry flatlands up into the beautiful mountains above Lake Baringo in search of grass. But this land is inhabited by Tugen, and the Tugen are struggling to feed their own livestock as it is.

In central Kenya, grass and vegetation can be a matter of life and death, and not just for the animals. Pastoralists depend upon milk and meat for their livelihoods. Deprived of that income, entire communities can become food insecure. For many families, livestock are their only assets: they have no bank accounts, no land to farm.

Combine those stakes with the fact that experts believe there are 530,000 to 680,000 guns in circulation among civilians in Kenya. Guns have long been traded across Kenya’s porous border with Somalia, but some have recently been traced to Uganda and South Sudan. Most herders who carry them do so for self-defense—to protect their animals from raiders. But others use them to raid.

Some of the Pokot who have crossed into the administrative region of Arabal this year fall into the latter category. Since the drought began late last year, there have been dozens of shootouts between Tugen, Pokot, and the police. Thousands of heads of livestock have been stolen, though just how many thousands is anyone’s guess.

Survivors of these shootouts speak of the Pokot as if they were immune to bullets, as if they were sharpshooters who never missed, as if their ammunition were infinite. But survivors are hard to find.

Read the feature story at Roads & Kingdoms. Reported with Anthony Langat, photos by Will Swanson.