August 19, 2006

Marooned Ethiopians refuse to leave cattle

By Tsegaye Tadesse

OMERATE, Ethiopia (Reuters) - Hundreds of Ethiopians
marooned on small outcrops above flooded plains refused to
abandon livestock despite rescuers' pleas on Saturday.

Special forces, sliding down ropes from helicopters and
airdropping aid, tried to rescue people trapped by flash floods
that have killed nearly 900 people and displaced almost 50,000
across the Horn of Africa nation this month.

Stranded on hillocks by the floodwaters, herders in the
southwestern town of Omerate leaned on sticks and stared across
the virtual sea separating them from their cows and goats.

A special forces commander said they would die unless they
agreed to be rescued.

"Survival without cattle is meaningless. I would prefer to
die than lose my cattle," Awala Rendela, a rescued resident,
said. "No milk, no life. No cattle, no life."

A drought earlier this year killed thousands of livestock
in the region, and many herders in Omerate said they would not
abandon what cattle they had left.

Pleading with them to leave, rescuers on boats brought food
and supplies to the encircled residents in the town near the
Kenyan border, where the Omo River burst its banks on Sunday
killing 364 people, many while they were sleeping.

"They are encircled by flood water and they are facing
certain death unless they are rescued, but they have refused to
budge," said Major Solomon Gebre-Ebegzabher, commander of the
special forces conducting rescue operations in Omerate.


Residents said flood waters ripped through their houses
taking away families and friends, and many only survived by
grabbing onto nearby trees or scrambling onto rooftops.

"The flood that hit my bedside in the middle of the night
took my wife and daughter. By the time I reached the bedside,
they were gone," resident Makone Koleta said. "I wish my
new-born baby and my wife would have survived instead of me."

In a tour of the devastated area on Friday, Prime Minister
Meles Zenawi promised the government would help the stranded.

Local officials pledged to replace livestock lost in the
flooding and sent a team of elders to convince the trapped
herders to evacuate.

"We are hoping that they will heed the call and register
the number of animals lost in the flood," district
administrator Dirma Gmewenya said. "We have no means to rescue
the cattle."

Bad weather and poor access to remote areas have hindered
relief efforts by already overwhelmed emergency services, and
officials fear the death toll could rise rapidly.

Aid agencies say heavy rains are likely to continue until
September and spread flooding to other areas.

The United Nations estimates that as many as 48,000 people
across the country have been displaced by flooding, which
typically happens in lowland areas when rains during the
June-September rainy season drench Ethiopia's highlands.

Ethiopia has appealed for help as rivers in the north,
south, east and west burst their banks and the country's major
dams swell to breaking point.

The United States said it had sent 35 soldiers based in
Djibouti to aid relief efforts in Dire Dawa, 525 km (324 miles)
east of the capital, where the Dechatu River overflowed two
weeks ago, killing 254 and leaving 250 missing, feared dead.

As well as bringing tents and medicine, the soldiers would
dig latrines for the thousands of survivors.