By Tesfa-Alem Tekle
May 15, 2012 (ADDIS ABABA) - The Ethiopian government has dismissed reports of violence in the country’s South Western region that allegedly forced civilians flee into South Sudan’s Jonglei State.
A new humanitarian report released by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that hundreds of ethnic Anuak Ethiopians have crossed into South Sudan to escape hostility between government forces and little-known Anuak opposition forces in the country’s Gambella region.
The Ethiopian government has dismissed the reported clashes between government forces and Anuak insurgents that allegedly occurred over the past few weeks.
“There wasn’t such an incident. Our forces didn’t engage in any clash with whatsoever opposition force in the reported vicinity” Ethiopian government spokesperson, Shimeles Kemal, told Sudan Tribune on Tuesday.
Kemal said the reports - which originally were published in OCHA’s Weekly Humanitarian Bulletin 4-10 May 2012 - are “unfounded [...] white propaganda”.
According to the Ethiopian official, the areas in question are peaceful and there were no grounds for the Anuak people to flee to neighbouring South Sudan.
However, he said that people residing along the shared Ethiopia-South Sudan border move frequently between the two territories for trade and other purposes.
In the past, there were few reports that an Anuak armed group had been launching small-scale attacks from South Sudan, while it was still part of Sudan, targeting government forces and to a lesser extent non-Anuak civilians.
The Ethiopian government argues that currently there exists no active Anuak opposition force operating in the region.
According to the latest OCHA report, most of the Ethiopian refugees reportedly came from Ethiopia’s Abobo district and from Jor area where clashes were reported on 6 May.
The refugees have arrived in the Alari camp, in Pochalla County of Jonglei State where they sought shelter.
Although access to Alari camp is difficult because of heavy rainfall, humanitarian aid agencies in collaboration with the South Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (SSRRC) are reportedly visiting the Ethiopian refugees to start registration and identify the humanitarian aid needed for the new arrivals.
Shelter and household goods were the most urgent needs, according to a primary assessment by aid agencies. A nutritional assessment made to 100 children at the site found no malnutrition.
UNHCR’s representative in Addis Ababa, Natalia Prokopchuk told Sudan Tribune that her office in Ethiopia has no knowledge about the Anuaks fleeing to Jonglei State, however she said that the UN refugee agency was aware of some 2,000 Anuaks fleeing Akobo County into Gambella region of Ethiopia.
According to Prokopchuk, the Anuaks are fleeing their area because of cattle-related inter-ethnic violence.
The Anuak people, roughly estimated to be around 60,000, are one of the 84 ethnic groups in Ethiopia. The Anuak also live across the border in South Sudan.
International human rights groups have been accusing the Ethiopian military of committing systematic atrocities mainly targeting certain ethnic minorities such as the Anuak.
Human Rights Watch’s 2005 report, “Targeting the Anuak: Human Rights Violations and Crimes against Humanity in Ethiopia’s Gambella Region,” revealed gross human rights violations against the Anuaks by the Ethiopian army.
In 2003, over 400 Anuaks in Gambella were killed, the largest single incident, raising worldwide condemnation. International rights groups hold the Ethiopian army responsible over the mass killings. However, the Ethiopian government has denied any involvement in the atrocities.