On March 10th, 2018, Ethiopian citizens witnessed 13 innocent people get murdered by their own police. In August of 2017, Ethiopia lifted a 10-month state of emergency. Since the Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, stepped down from his position in February of this year, Ethiopia has reclaimed a state of emergency. For those unfamiliar with what this means it is, “A situation of natural danger in which a government suspends normal constitutional procedures in order to introduce special measures such as increased powers for police or army.”
After the death of 13 people, the melting pot of ethiopia and Kenya's border mixed a little more than usual. thousands fled to Kenya to find refuge, mostly consisting of women and children. Families came with nothing but the clothes on their backs, sometimes walking for 12 hours straight. Locals in Kenyan villages took the first refugees in, aiding them in any way they could. The Kenyan Red Cross, UNHCR, and UNICEF were immediately notified and took action. Providing refugees with shelters, basic food, blankets, and water. Soon, the refugees grew to almost 10,000 and more NGO’s were getting involved.
let me tell you about my night in a refugee camp:
A 12-hour bus trip across the country with threats of bandits was not what i thought i would be doing in kenya. but once i heard this story i knew i had to go. i had no plan, no contacts on the ground, and very little money. getting to moyale, the main town about 400m away from the border, i had expected the refugee camp to not be too far from there. the main camp i needed to get to was in dambala fachana (DF), a small village about 65 km away from moyale. with no transportation and my moral getting lower, i headed to the restaurant of my hotel for breakfast. sulking in my terrible cup of chai tea and peanut butter sandwich, i watched as three men walked in with unhcr jackets. i took this chance to introduce myself and explain my situation. i had come too far not to photograph the camp. i shamelessly asked for help and they kindly gave it to me. presenting me with phone numbers of people within the camp and helping me get cleared, as they couldn't let just anyone walk into a refugee camp and take photos. one of the workers told me i could ride in the back of his car, i was excited and relieved that i had made the opportunity to do this.
the drive seemed long and i started recognizing landmarks from when i first arrived in northern kenya. i could feel my hands shaking as the workers said it was nearly impossible to get anyone's pictures. they told me all the regulations of getting the refugee's permission. it seemed like this would be a very complicated process, but also challenging. putting myself in these uncomfortable situations helped me grow both mentally and with my photography. entering into dambala fachana, we drove down a dusty road with small mud huts lining the sides. i could see the civilians glaring at me through the window, my white skin a reflective beacon. the camp soon came into view with the tops of white huts grazing the horizon and a wash of bright colors filling my eyes.
i couldn't look away, my stomach was uneasy, i gripped my camera knowing if i had gotten this far already, i needed to continue. inside the air conditioned 4x4 was comfortable, i stepped outside only to be surrounded by heavy heat and the sun constantly reminding me of its presence. a journalist for unhcr took me under his wing and explained some basic rules of how the camp worked and what not to take photos of. he said words that i will never forget as i picked up my camera, "don't shoot the security guards or they will shoot you." his camera seemed small in his big hand as he clumped along the ground. at first i was scared to take pictures, scared of being yelled at and of being told no. i watched as the hundreds of woman lined up to receive their rations of food for the next two weeks. first, needing to prove they had registered in the camp, they encircled a guy in a plastic chair who was checking the list. in their hands they carried dirty unicef water jugs and empty bags to be filled with maze. we followed the line of bare feet to the end, where they had their fingerprints stamped as they went back to their shelters with food, water, and vegetable oil.
the journalist only spoke kswahili, which made it hard for us to communicate with the refugees. often getting permission was us pointing the camera at them and they would nod yes or no. campfire smoke swirled through the air as we walked, the white tents seemed a relentless reminder of their current situation a thorn they can never quite get out all the way. in the background, a small plush mountain filled with green bushes and trees. a mountain that all the refugees had to climb over to get here. a mountain that was a sign of hope and hurt all at once. i could feel the heaviness in the air, the kids carried burdens i would never know in my life.
we made our way to the small hospital operated by volunteers through the red cross. going into the concrete building, i immediately saw two ladies on wooden beds hooked up to iv drips. my mind wandered to all of the possibilities of their conditions. i saw their family members sitting next to them in sadness. they swatted the flies away from their face and would quickly sit back down in their chair. i was informed by one of the medics that they were both suffering from dehydration, the most common medical problem within the camp. in the next room over i could hear a child crying, i crossed through the doorway to reveal a small girl, only one and a half years old getting a bloodied bandage removed from her left leg. her dreadlocked hair and seashell bracelet wrapped around her tender wrist. she shed tears as the doctor removed the bandage and held her leg over a small metal bowl. comforted by the arms of her father, i was told she had a boil. i watched the puss drip and the pain she was feeling circulated through my body as i snapped a photo.
after this encounter, my mind drew blanks and recited the problems i had faced in my life. the dizziness of my thoughts was quickly interrupted by the journalist telling me it was time to go. the tone of his voice bland and unfazed. we walked to the white 4x4 and i slumped my body into the air conditioned car. the realization that i could escape this and go home to have cup of coffee and they could not weighed on me. it weighed on my brain. on my body. it got comfortable on the contours of my back as i walked up the stairs to my room. it sat on my shoulders as i took a cold shower. it made acquaintances with my mouth as i ate hot food. tomorrow was a new day.
in the morning i awoke expecting to swoon the unhcr staff again at breakfast. i headed down and snuck a packet of instant coffee in my pocket to avoid drinking the tea. i sat there facing the door, waiting, expecting, hoping. no one came. i had exchanged numbers with the journalist, i texted him and he told me they were going to a different camp that did not allow foreign media. my heart dropped, but my mind raced about how i would get to the camp today. contemplating my options, i decided to find a bus. with vague instructions from the receptionist, i set out to find a bus station. eventually finding a small bus that would drop me off at the camp, i sat in the front seat and made acquaintances with the old man who owned it. he seemed trustworthy, so i waited. i waited for over two hours for us to move but my patience was getting shorter as well as the day. a man with a bright pink, collared shirt walked up to my window and got very close to me. his words bounced off the skin of my neck as he whispered, "i can help you." My body recoiled as i saw his toothy smile come into view, and i was not about to trust this man to get me to the camp. i looked him in the eyes and firmly stated that i don't like being lied to. he assured me he wasn't lying, swearing on god's name. i could feel the devil and angel in my head bickering about the next move, being desperate enough, i slung my camera bag on my shoulder and followed him to a big, green bus. he gave me a front row seat next to the driver so i could i see through the windshield. it took us another 30 minutes to finally get going, stopping at every village along the way. i watched the mountain in the distance i had become accustom to get bigger. the bus jolted to a stop where the pink collared man let me out and introduced me to a guy who said he would take care of me. a red cross uniform bundled in his left hand. i was lead down that dirt road and into the camp again. i felt more at ease as i greeted the security guards. after introductions, he started walking me around the camp. i could see the refugees trusted him. he spoke four different languages and could communicate clearly with everyone. i noticed brighter smiles and kinder eyes. i fixed on the acceptance of their body movements. as i was paraded around the camp, an older woman was speaking to my guide asking if i could stay with her that night in her hut. i felt honored that someone who had nothing would want me to stay with them. the guide joked as he repeated her words, as if i would never actually do that. this would be an experience of a lifetime and i couldn't just turn away from it. i enquired if i could actually stay and he assured me.
That night we ate at his brothers house, white rice and vegetables, as we felt the darkness fall around us on the couch. they prepared me with a mat and thin, red and black checkered blanket. we made our way to the hut and as we did a crowd of refugees surrounded my back, trying to touch the ends of my hair. they were shocked that a white girl would stay the night there. as the woman prepared a spot for my mat, more and more people crowded around. i felt like i could do nothing but go to sleep, the moon was full, providing a natural night-light. `
i laid in my bed watching the woman as her slender silhouette filled the entry way. her granddaughter and daughter asleep next to me under a fleece blanket. i could hear chattering between her and the people sitting outside, occasionally a flashlight blinding my eyes, although i couldn't understand what they were saying, i knew the flashlight was proving that i was there. it took me a while to fall asleep, my body turning on different sides trying to find a comfortable spot amongst the hard ground. my head was rested on a sack of food for a pillow and i could hear donkey's in the background. getting up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom (and by that i mean behind a small bush), the mother walked me outside the tent. she held my hand, and lead me away from the tents. i looked up at the sky seeing the stars, i had never seen them shine so bright. it felt like a hauntingly beautiful dream. returning to the hut, i slept soundly.
I was the last to wake up that morning, to find the mother had gone and the daughter was starting to a build a fire. she looked at me puzzled. with a red scarf wrapped around her head and a blue tie-dyed skirt, she peeked inside the tent and i snapped a quick picture.
enjoying the last cup of tea with the family and my guide, i absorbed my surroundings one last time. the mother told the translator i was now her first born child and to come back anytime. leaving i felt the weight return to the contours of my back.
a problem i have found in documentary photography is that you view the photos, you feel bad, and then you go on with your daily life. often times there is no way to help, but what if the viewer is impacted enough to want to help the situation? if these photos impacted you in some way, please consider donating to the fundraiser i have put together. the donations will go to clothing, food, and medical supplies.
if you would like to donate to their cause, here is the link: https://fundly.com/ethiopia-refugee-crisis