Displaced by conflict, children miss their schools and friends

Ethnic conflict in Ethiopia has displaced tens of thousands, uprooting families and young people.

By Demissew Bizuwerk
Ethiopia. A girl warms her hands near a fire at a site for internally displaced persons.
12 March 2021

AMHARA REGION, Ethiopia – Hayria, 11, remembers the day her village was attacked. “When I first heard gunshots, I didn’t think it was anything serious. But the sounds kept getting closer,” she says.

Concerned for their safety, the family fled their home in Dangur woreda, a district in the Benishangul-Gumuz region in northwest Ethiopia, and spent the night at Hayria’s grandmother’s house.

The gunfire continued through the night. “I was terrified. I couldn’t stop crying,” Hayria says.  

The family decided to travel to the neighbouring Amhara region, eventually arriving in Chagni, which is currently home to around 49,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), according to the Amhara regional government.

Ethiopia. A girl stands near tents at a camp for internally displaced persons.
Hayria and her family fled their village in northwest Ethiopia after it was attacked.

“I’m not sure where my friends are. I don’t know what happened to them,” says Hayria, who is now one of around 20,000 children displaced by violence in Benishangul-Gumuz since November 2020.

Like many other students, she was excited about the upcoming academic year. “My mother had already bought me exercise books,” she says. “I really wanted to learn. I miss my school and my friends.”

Ethiopia. A girl looks at the camera at a site for displaced people.
Hayria says she remembers clearly the gunshots she heard the day her village was attacked.

Hayria says she wants to become a doctor one day so she can help treat sick people. But it’s unclear when she’ll be able to return to her school – or even her home. For now, she and her sister are doing what they can to help their mother, including fetching water from one of the water points installed by UNICEF.

Ethiopia. Two people sit on top of a water tank at a displacement site.
UNICEF, in coordination with the Amhara regional government, is providing clean water for those staying in a camp for internally displaced persons.

With funding from USAID, UNICEF was able to install five 10,000-litre tanks to store safe water for those staying at the displacement site.

Ethiopia. Children gather to collect clean water from a water point.
Children gather to collect clean water from a water point.

Clean water is trucked in regularly, and UNICEF is coordinating with the Amhara regional government to supply therapeutic foods, medicines and other supplies, says Israel Alemayehu, a nutrition officer at UNICEF’s Amhara field office.

Ethiopia. A small child is given a vitamin A supplement.
A nurse gives a small child a vitamin A supplement at a camp for internally displaced persons.

But conditions at the site remain tough. The site is overcrowded, there’s insufficient shelter, and finding enough food is difficult for the families staying there. Displaced children are also particularly vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence. UNICEF has therefore been working with partners to provide dignity kits for women and girls, as well as recreational kits and tents.

Ethiopia. People gather outside tents at a camp for internally displaced persons.
People gather outside tents at a camp for internally displaced persons.

Hayat, 10, also remembers the day she and her family were forced to flee their home – and the screams in her neighbourhood that alerted them to the approaching danger. “They were burning our harvest and the fire was coming towards our house,” she says. “My mother gathered together me and my siblings and we ran away. I was so afraid.”

Ethiopia. A girl stands outside a tent at a camp for internally displaced persons.
Hayat fled her home in Benishangul-Gumuz region when her village was attacked.

Hayat and her family also fled to Chagni. She says that life at the displacement site is difficult, but that she’s just grateful to be alive. And, like Hayria, she is looking forward to being able to return to school and see her friends again.

“I loved maths because our teacher always made sure that we understood it,” she says. “I was always the quickest to answer her questions and she would keep encouraging me.”

Ethiopia. A girl stands near some tents at a camp for internally displaced persons.
Hayat says she is looking forward to one day being able to go back to school and see her friends again.

Hayat’s mother, Kedija, is looking forward to her daughter resuming her education. “She’s a very clever student,” Kedija says. “She asks me if I can send her back to school. She’s worried that the longer she stays away, the more she’ll lag behind her friends.”