Gambella--caught in a limbo.

Author:Jeffrey, James
Position:Around Africa: Ethiopia - Port town that became camp for Southern Sudanese refugees

The Ethiopian town of Gambella, once a thriving port, has now become little more than a refugee camp for Southern Sudanese fleeing the war in their country. But the presence of the refugees is causing tensions among the locals. Will the current peace-deal in South Sudan restore the city to its former status? Report by James Jeffrey.

The brown waters of the Baro River meander through the Ethiopian city of Gambella amid an atmosphere of tropical languor, creating an almost cliched archetype of the Joseph Conrad-esque African river port. Except for trie fact that there is not a single boat on the river.

The 2013 outbreak of civil war in South Sudan, whose border lies 50km from the city, put an end to the thriving trade that once plied the Baro River between Gambella and Juba, the South Sudanese capital.

Thousands of South Sudanese refugees poured over the border into refugee camps around Gambella and throughout the same-named and most westerly of Ethiopia's federal states.

This stoked local ethnic tensions and meant Gambella became subsumed into the humanitarian response of foreign NGOs. Now, though, the peace process that began after South Sudan's warring factions signed a deal in late 2018 means Gambella city, and the wider region, might have a chance of regaining its identity and purpose.

"The river used to be full of boats and trade before 2013 and the war broke out," one Gambella local says of the Baro River and its tributaries flowing across the border.

Nowadays the most urgent traffic comes from the plethora of white SU Vs, plastered with the logos of almost every NGO to be found in Ethiopia. Some locals are employed by NGOs as drivers and translators, but the vast majority of locals struggling to get by see little of the money generated by Ethiopia's refugee industry.

In 2018 the budget required for Ethiopia's total refugee population --around 900,000--was estimated at $618m.

"You can see the conflict of interest dynamic in the influence that refugee policy has," says a worker with a foreign aid organisation assisting refugees in Ethiopia, who wished to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the subject. "The refugees are getting more, while the locals are getting nothing."

Strength in numbers

It is hard to visit Gambella and not be struck by the height of many locals, some with horizontal scarification lines across their foreheads--the Nuer, one of five ethnic groups populating the region.

Close ties and tensions between the...

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