Forced to flee and give birth in makeshift camps

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After rebel forces from the Tigray region mounted attacks in neighbouring Amhara region, hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to abandon their homes in the North Wollo zone and flee south in search of a safer environment. Most of the displaced are sheltered in Dessie, capital of the South Wollo zone of the Amhara region. Arriving on foot, and few of them by bus, they came with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing. Some reported that they had to walk for days in order to reach the town. The following report in BBC Amharic attempts to provide some insight about the lot of the displaced and the situation in which they found themselves.

The affected IDPs resided with host families or in makeshift shelter camps. There are 14 Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in existence in Dessie town and some schools in the city are also hosting the IDPs including children, pregnant women and newborn. North Wollo Zone Health Department Head Selamwit Ayalew said that at least 118 women had given birth in the refugee camps in the past month.

Woizero Ayal Semaw is one the 118 women. She resided  in her native town, Harra where she was a housewife raising three children.

She says she had  enjoyed a reasonably good standard of life  and was expecting her baby, her fourth. She kept herself busy with all the preparation that had to be made when something ominous happened. Her town turned into a battlefield.

So the residents of the town had to flee en masse and she had to join them fleeing for safety. Holding her two-year baby, her two other children helping each other, they began the arduous trek to Dessie. Where transport services are available, she had to pay a thousand birr for a journey of mere 15 or 20 kms. The rest of the journey they had to traipse on foot.

On arrival, she was penniless as she spent all the money she had. So unable to pay for a hotel room or rent a room, she had to take shelter in a Kedame Gebeya school compound which was turned into a temporary refugee camp.

Within just eight days of her arrival in the camp, she went into labour and had to be rushed to the nearby health station where she gave birth. However as she had no room to herself when she could care for her newborn she had to go back to the camp, away from the care and support of relatives.

It has been two weeks since she has been caring for her newborn cooped up in a room teeming with 30 people. The pious mother tries to make the best of their unfavourable situation praising Allah. Saying that things could have been a lot worse and mere survival was reason enough to be grateful.

Yet she has concerns and worries. “Since I’m not getting the nutrients I need and sharing a room with thirty people, I’m concerned about the risk this could pose to our health. The handout we get is not sufficient. Until now my husband had been purchasing food with a little money we were left with, but it has almost run out. I don’t know how to face the future,” she says.

Alemtsehai Mekonnen was also displaced from Habru Woreda and gave birth to her first child in a refugee camp totally disoriented. Alemtsehai, who worked at the Mersa campus of Woldia University, said her husband was a government employee and they lead a decent life.

When the war expanded to the outskirts of Mersa, Alemtsehai was only a few days away from her delivery date. She thought that the conflict was a temporary one, so she did not take all the things she prepared for birth. She traveled to Dessie with her husband and sick mother.

Three days after her arrival in Dessie, Alemtsehai gave birth to her first son. “When I think about it, tears come to my eyes,” she says. “Ever since I was expecting my first child, I did have a lot of things ready but unfortunately I could not make use of any of it and  i ended up depending on others.”

Alemtsehai is currently staying with a family living in a kebele house along with nine other people. “I set 40 kilos of barley, honey and butter with my weak energy and all by myself, but I left my home empty handed,” she said.

Alemtsehai says she is breastfeeding her child but she doesn’t have enough milk as she doesn’t eat enough. “My baby is crying because he is starving. Now that I am sheltered at the charity of others, we have no choice but to wait to return to my village,” she says.

Eyerus Tadesse was another displaced woman who was facing a frightful and uncertain future. She arrived in Dessie with her 8-year-old son from Woldia. She is nine months pregnant and less than five days shy of delivery.

Eyerus, who lives in one of the shelters in Dessie, Dawdo school says she has no one to take care of her or offer her assistance.

Eyerus gave birth to her first child, by an emergency caesarean. As she suffers from a wide range of ailments, including high blood pressure, she was told she could not give birth to her second child naturally.

She now finds herself crammed in a small settlement with 37other  people. When five days later when she gives birth, she will be returning to the same shelter with her new baby, as she has nowhere to go. “I have no funds; just living day by day with no idea of what the future will bring. I keep taking eating the same diet as before, and sharing the space with some sick people. This is a concern in itself,” she says.

These mothers were displaced before the war reached their hometowns and managed to make it to Dessie. The condition of thousands of other women in the North Wollo zone who remained there after the rebel controlled areas remains unknown. “On average, more than 6,000 mothers give birth each month at health facilities in the zone. No information is coming out of the areas which are currently under the control of the rebel forces,” said Selamwit Ayalew, head of the zonal health department.

In North Wollo Zone, six hospitals, several private health facilities, and health centers provided maternity services and follow-up. However, these institutions have been completely destroyed and out of service since the rebels took control of the area.

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