More than 35,000 famine victims have walked back during the past three days to Ibnet, the feeding camp that the Ethiopian government decided this week to reopen after it was burned and evacuated by government soldiers the week before, an American relief official said today.
"None of us anticipated this avalanche of people," said Dr. Tony Atkins, director of World Vision, an American relief agency that is working with the Ethiopian government to rebuild the camp. "We are not prepared to deal with what is happening."
Government messengers were sent Monday into the hills surrounding the camp to tell the tens of thousands of people holed up there that it was all right to come back to Ibnet, which until 13 days ago was the largest famine-relief camp in Ethiopia, with about 58,000 persons.
Since then, Ibnet has been inundated with returning people, many suffering from exposure and respiratory infections, the result of having slept outside without warm clothing for more than a week in the cold, wet central highlands.
Atkins said most of the estimated 52,000 famine refugees forced away from Ibnet and ordered to walk home did not travel more than a few hours from the camp. A few thousand walked to government feeding centers in the Welo region, about 60 miles east of Ibnet.
Atkins said Ibnet is being reopened to stabilize the health of famine victims and prepare them to go home to resume farming. But he added that the Ethiopian government "now recognizes the inevitability of a substantial number of people remaining in Ibnet for a prolonged period."
When Ibnet was evacuated during a three-day Army operation that began April 28, soldiers burned several thousand grass huts that had been homes for most of the camp's residents. Thus those returning this week still must sleep outside.
The first priority at the camp is to build latrines, to reduce the likelihood of infectious disease, Atkins said. Then, he said, attention will be focused on putting up tents and delivering food. There are at least 10,000 tons of relief food in the Ibnet area, he said.