Afar Region back where it was some 70 years ago

March 21st 2023 [Monthly update]

Promoted by the longings of Siad Barre, Issa Somalis were equipped and trained to push militarily into Afar Region as early as 1960’s/ 70’s, for the Issa, grazing the banks of the Awash River being the ultimate prize. During the Regime of Meles Zinabe in the 1990’s Issa gained favoritism for their unflagging skills in contraband, 3 towns on the Awash Road being set up to bring in any possible type of cargo (ranging from foreign perfumes to household goods, electronics, medicines to military hardware and even hard currency) all brought in nightly by camels trekking out from the Arab states, through Djibouti across the border around Obno and onto the Awash Road. Guddamayto became Ethiopia’s contraband capital, Unda Fo’o and Adayto secondary with staging posts set in the rural. The Issa/ Somali herdsmen then roamed the vast rangeland of the Yanguddi Rassa National Park, slowly working their way west of the Awash Road, crossing the Awash River and advancing into Afar Region’s Zone 5 aiming for the remaining canopy forests there. 

With the character of hit and run, the Issa were known as the raiders and traders of the area, killing a household of children, women and men at night to raid the sleeping herd, killing truck drivers to loot the truck contents. From the 1990’s until the actual release of the last contraband town in June 2022, Issa/ Somalis terrorized the 280-kilometer strip from Awash town to Mille, dragging any Afar out of vehicles and summarily killing them as well as truck drivers. Again, the Afar herdsmen were encompassed so that their grazing was limited to a strip of land almost entirely taken over by the weed-shrub, prosopis juliafora driving the Gawwaani and Gala’alu Afar into perpetual malnutrition since their herds were unproductive and dying. In these two districts of central southern Afar, there is hardly a household that had not lost a person dead in some form of attack. The Issa – dominated government in Djibouti continues to support the fighting taking the struggle into an international perspective.

Re-drawing the Afar map

This cycle of misery is now broken: in June 2022, ‘Unda’Fo’o was eventually freed and released of Issa occupancy, opening the Awash Road as safe to Afar people and truck drivers alike. Each side of the road was released of the threat of attacks, Afar animals now able to roam the rangeland without the harassment of herd confiscation and the herder consequently dying. As the Afar fighters push back the belligerence that has plagued the southern Afar now for decades, land is opened up. The Region now has a 6th declared Zone calling it Maahe or sunrise, now of 4 districts that include the 2021 – established Garani district bordering to Afambo and Djibouti where Issa had long-grazed their cattle while characteristically raiding the Afar herd almost nightly. The new districts of Yanguddi, Sibeeba and Killaalu sit in a chain, Killaalu linking to Garani, Yanguddi cutting across to Yanguddi Rassa, the ancient volcanic peak and Sibeeba taking in the Lake called Adda’adow adjoining to Gawwaani and zone 5. Gawwaani too gets an extra district called Abida – these new districts all come up to within 30 to 50 kilometers of the current frontline of fighting as the Issa are being pushed back into their Afdem Zone in Somali Region.

My grandfather’s land…..

As a women in her 50’s described, she had come from ‘Adda’ar not just because the fighting had made her a widow but because as a girl, she recalls all that happened to the family under Issa attacks, how her brothers and uncles were forced to herd further west leaving the land her father was raised on. Dramatically, she said that it is the land and the future – food, shelter and other matters of need were utterly secondary. This good lady is among over 300,000 such people coming from as far away as northern Afar Region back to their ancestral land as it is released of the terror of Issa.   

The new settlers, the melting pot of the Region

Most striking is the determination and the camaraderie that is bubbling in all the little rural settlements as women and children still fight off the sniper attacks by night as Issa come in to raid animals yet they are the NEW Afar – with no geographic identity coming from all pockets of the Region and thus free of clan differences, a blend of driven energy to go forward – all excited about the pristine range of grasses and shrubs that support good animal breeding, all determined that any degree of hardship is worth it to be free of decades of terror. Perhaps 50,000 households have moved in with what herds they could bring from their previous homes.


They literally have no developed water points aside from a group of 50 shallow wells Issa dug close to Guhum. For some, distance to water is over 24 hours walk. Immediate construction of earthen dams could be a solution till boreholes and water schemes can be secured.

The market is just the asphalt road again hours and days walk. Remarkably, the new settlers appear not to have pack animals. Government is water trucking as far as roads can take water.

For APDA the solution could well be the model the organization started with 28 years ago of mobile health workers, mobile teachers and women extension workers, all coming from the community they serve. This may well relieve the present problem and lay the groundwork for stable and ongoing services. This could be the means to immediately vaccinate the community as well as follow their malnutrition and maternal health services as well as promoting learning as the way forward.

As the discussion proceeded, this little girl in Guhum imitating her mother and grandmother lines up threads from torn sacks to roll into rope

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