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RIC Query - Eritrea (13 May 2003)

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Response to Information Request Number:ERI03003.REF
Date:May 13, 2003
Subject:Eritrea: Information on the Kunama Ethnic Group
From:BCIS Resource Information Center
Keywords:Eritrea / Displaced persons / Ethnic minorities / Female circumcision / Freedom of religion / Genital mutilation / Kunama / Linguistic minorities / Political opposition / Refugees / Refugee camps / Religious practices / Traditional practices




Please provide information on the Kunama ethnic group of Eritrea, including relevant historical, geographical and cultural information.

Please provide information on the current status of the Kunama ethnic group in Eritrea, and also information on the relationship of the Kunama to the Eritrean and Ethiopian governments.



The Kunama ethnic group lives mainly in the border areas between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Estimates of the Kunama population range from 50,000 (CNEWA 2003) to 142,000 (Ethnologue 2002). The number of native speakers of the Kunama language in Eritrea is estimated by Ethnologue to be 140,000 (Ethnologue 2002).  According to a report from the UN information agency, "There are estimated to be around 100,000 Kunamas in Ethiopia and Eritrea….About 70,000 are said to live in Eritrea—mostly in the Gash-Barka region" (UN IRIN 2 Dec 2002). The Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) estimates the Kunama population of Eritrea and Ethiopia to be between 50,000 – 60,000 (CNEWA 2003). According to Okbazghi Yohannes, Political Science Professor at the University of Louisville and author of the 1991 book, "Eritrea: Pawn in World Politics":

"The Kunama are a Nilo-Saharan ethnic community living between the Gash and Setit rivers in Southwestern Eritrea. Said to number about 70,000, they are remnants of the ancient inhabitants of the region. Originally the Kunama were animists and their conversion to Islam and Protestantism is of recent history. They are agriculturalists organized into villages" (Yohannes 1991, 7-8).


The Kunama were formerly a nomadic people and today are settled agriculturalists and pastoralists living from cattle. They are matriarchal with a prominent role played by women. According to the Kunama social system, a child is a member of Kunama society only if his or her mother is Kunama, and relatives are only recognized on the mother's side. The Kunama have ceremonies for rights of passage—birth, circumcision, and passage to adulthood—performed by members of the particular kinship group ( 2001). Female circumcision (or female genital mutilation, FGM) is normally performed on young girls between the ages of five and twelve, and the most extreme form of FGM (infibulation, or type III) is carried out on 31 percent of Kunama women according to the U.S. Department of State (US DOS 1 June 2001;, 2001).

The Kunama carry out many tasks communally, including house building, collecting firewood, setting fences, plowing, weeding field-crops, harvesting, crop-gathering and storing, death and burial, and memorial rites ( 2001). According to a report from a Catholic pastoral and humanitarian organization:

"The Kunama venerate their ancestors and have a special reverence for the elders of the tribe. This respect for their elders allows the tribe to make important decisions, called "democratic choices," which always involve two elders. The Kunama work together, designating certain months for special "events." September, for example, is the time for harvest; January is the month for repairing houses. Everything is done as a community, each helping the other. Even at funerals, the entire village attends: It is their custom to bid farewell as a group, though children are not allowed to participate" (CNEWA 2003).

"Though there are different theories as to the origin of the Kunama, some say that they came from the historical town of Axum, which in the Kunama language translates to "the fifth small hill." Others say that the Kunama originated in the Nile River basin. According to linguistic classifications, the Kunama language is a distinct category within the West Nilotic group, and is related to languages in Sudan, Chad and Ethiopia" (Ethiopia Humanitarian Update 28 Feb 2002).

According to the State Department's report on international religious freedom, "A majority of the Kunama are Roman Catholics or Muslims, and some practice traditional indigenous religions" (US DOS 7 Oct 2002). A report from a non-governmental organization, however, stated: "Some half of the Kunama people are faithful to their original natural religion, half have already taken up Islam, others are Christians" (Esel-Initiative no date). Traditional Kunama religion is monotheistic, but without the hierarchies and formal external practices of Islam or Christianity. According to a study of Kunama religious practices:

"Unlike the traditional and world religions like Christianity and Islam, the Kunama religion knows neither clergy nor any types of religious rites, celebrations or functions performed in congregation and in established localities such as churches or mosques. It does not even use formal set of prayers or body positions like kneeling or prostrating. The Kunama has a natural attitude towards the material as well as spiritual matters. It is a kind of religion consisting purely on personal and basic belief in the existence of one God…who has created and governs everything…and possesses all the other divine attributes" ( Aug 2001).


A humanitarian update provides the following information on the Kunama ethnic group:

"The [Kunama] are one of the indigenous tribes inhabiting the areas around the Setit and Gash river basin, which extends up to and along the Eritrean and Sudanese border in Eritrea and the adjacent districts of Humera and Adi Abo in the Tigray National Regional State in North-western Ethiopia. The Kunama people are nominally divided into four main groups: Kunama Aimasa, living in the western part of the provincial capital town of Barentu; Kunama Barka, living along the river Gash in the south-eastern part of Barentu; Kunama Marda, residing in the north-eastern part of Barentu; and Kunama Tika, living along the river Gash in the southern part of Barentu" (Ethiopia Humanitarian Update 28 Feb 2002).

The Eritrean government changed the name of the Gash-Setit region to Gash-Barka in 1995 when there was an administrative restructuring in the country. This region is relatively rich in resources. According to a study by Alexander Naty, a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Asmara University:

"There is a great deal of fertile land for farming not only staple food crops such as sorghum, millet and a variety of legumes but also cash crops such as cotton and sesame. There has been a belief that considers the Gash-Setit region as [the] breadbasket of Eritrea. The notion of breadbasket encourages the establishment of large scale farms in the area. The promotion of such farms has been causing environmental degradation in the country….The Gash-Setit region is endowed with pastureland [where] pastoral societies graze their livestock. Communities such as the Tigre and Hedareb graze their camels, cattle and goats in the area. This situation has brought these societies in conflict with the Kunama. According to oral history the conflicts that took place between the Kunama and the coalition of Tigre, Hedareb and the Nara in the 1940s and 1950s were all caused by competition over grazing land" (Naty 2002).

Settlement of people from other areas in the Gash-Setit region was limited during the period of Italian colonialism, under the imperial regime of Haile Selassie, and up to the period of independence. But, settlements "increased alarmingly after [Eritrean] independence" (Naty 2002):

"Since 1991 the area has witnessed the settlement of populations from other regions of Eritrea (particularly highland parts of the country) demobilized ex-fighters and returnees from Sudan….The 1998 conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia has also resulted in the settlement of the internally displaced populations from the Tigrinya ethnic group in Kunama villages, such as Delle, Tolegamaja and Karkon" (Naty 2002).

According to Naty:

"The [Eritrean government] policy that made all land state property has encouraged the settlement of people from other regions of Eritrea in the area. The settlers compete with the local populations over the utilization of resources. The competition over scarce resources often leads to tension. The agricultural policy of the state encourages big commercial farms. The individuals who own these commercial farms are mostly from the Tigrinya ethnic group. The land policy of the Eritrean government undermines the clan-based traditional ownership of land among the Kunama" (Naty 2002).

Horn of Africa specialist Patrick Gilkes states that the Kunama "have suffered extensively at the hands of Tigrinya speaking highlanders who have encroached on their lands, in the past and since Eritrean independence" (BBC News 23 May 2000).


Relations between the Kunama and the government of Eritrea have been tense since the country's independence in 1993. Kunamas have accused the Eritrean government of expropriating Kunama land for the resettlement of Eritrean refugees from Sudan ( May 2002). There have been various incidents, including the killing of two Kunama brothers by a Tigrinya policeman in Shambakko in 1995 that have increased tensions between the Kunama and Eritrean authorities (Naty 2002).

"More recent hostility between the Kunama and the Tigrinya has been revived by the border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 1998. The Kunama are accused of once again collaborating with Ethiopia because of their alleged association to an opposition movement. The Ethiopian regime has supported some Eritrean opposition movements including the one that the Kunama are accused of supporting" (Naty 2002). Amnesty International, documenting rights violations for year 2000, reported: "Some members of the Kunama ethnic group (or nationality)…were allegedly killed for supporting the Ethiopian military advance" (AI 2001).

The 4,000 refugees currently in the Wa'ala Nihibi refugee camp in Ethiopia, close to the disputed border with Eritrea, are mostly from two villages that came under the control of the Ethiopian army during the conflict. According to an IRIN report: "Their flight, alongside the Ethiopian army which pulled back under the ceasefire agreement, sparked accusations that they had sided with the Ethiopians." One woman in the camp is quoted as saying, "When the Ethiopians left, we were suspicious about revenge the Eritreans might take on us saying we helped the Ethiopians" (UN IRIN 2 Dec 2002). The Eritrean authorities have argued that the refugees were taken against their will by the Ethiopian military and should be returned to Eritrea. However, the pre-existing tension between the Eritrean government and the Kunama, and the existence of Kunama "liberation movements" supported by some Kunama and by the Ethiopian government appears to have increased the Eritrean authorities' suspicions of Kunama loyalties and placed the Wa'ala Nihibi refugees in a precarious situation (UN IRIN 2 Dec 2002).

Some Kunama have come out in opposition to the Eritrean government and formed the Eritrean Kunama Democratic Liberation Movement (EKDLM) and the Eritrean Democratic Resistance Movement Gash-Setit. Both groups are listed among 11 signatories to the 6 March 1999 political charter of the Alliance of Eritrean National Forces ("Political Charter of the Alliance of Eritrean National Forces" 6 Mar 1999).

The Alliance of Eritrean National Forces was later renamed the Eritrean National Alliance (ENA) and is informally referred to as the "Alliance." The group's secretary-general, Hirouy Tedla Bahru, told reporters in Ethiopia that the (ENA) is an umbrella group of 14 opposition parties who plan to use the radio and Internet as a tool to overthrow the Eritrean government (Eritrean News Wire 23 Oct 2002). Leaders of the EKDLM and Eritrean Democratic Resistance Movement Gash-Setit are listed among the 13 signatories to the 22 October 2002 National Charter of the Eritrean National Alliance established in Addis Ababa ( 29 Apr 2003; Mehari 27 Oct 2002). It is not clear from the sources consulted how much genuine support these organizations have among the Kunama people.

ENA Secretary-General Herui [also spelled Hirouy] in an interview with Eritrean-Kunama's Division of Public Information provided the following information on military strategy of the ENA:

"The central thrust of our strategy is to launch a widespread social movement led by a united opposition. This does not mean that the ENA does not have a military strategy: it has. This strategy aims to unite the military forces of the sister organizations of the ENA on the one hand, and to create camps for the opposition in the dictator's army to join the army of the ENA, on the other. The point is: the mobilization of our people and unification of the opposition forces take precedence over a strategy founded upon military confrontation alone" ( 1 Mar 2003).

The US Department of State in their Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in Eritrea for year 2002 reported:

". . . government and societal discrimination against the Kunama, one of nine ethnic groups, who reside primarily in the west. Because a Kunama opposition group operated out of Ethiopia and was supported by Ethiopian authorities, some Kunama in the country were suspected of supporting or having sympathies with the Ethiopian Government. In 2001 there were unconfirmed reports that the Government took land from Kunamas without compensation and gave it to other ethnic groups on the grounds that the land had not been efficiently exploited. There also was an unconfirmed report that Eritrean refugees returning from Sudan were resettled on Kunama fields after evicting the native Kunama. There was some societal discrimination against Kunamas because they were seen as ethnically and culturally different from most Eritreans" (US DOS 31 Mar 2003).

"There was no information available, nor is any likely to become available, on the several members of the Kunama ethnic group who were detained without charges on suspicion of collaborating with Ethiopian forces in 2000" (US DOS 31 Mar 2003).


A humanitarian update provided the following information on the situation of the Kunama refugees of the Eritrea-Ethiopia border war:

"The refugees first crossed into Ethiopia soon after the outbreak of the war in May 1998. The fighting continued for two years and resulted in the destruction of Berantu, the capital of Kunama located in Eritrea. Upon their arrival to Ethiopia, the Ethiopian government authorities and the local communities at large received and extended their assistance through a mutual sharing of available but limited resources in order to meet their survival needs. The Kunama refugees numbered 4,164 as of 30 November 2001" (Ethiopia Humanitarian Update 28 Feb 2002).

About 4,000 Kunama fled Eritrea in 2000 as the war with Ethiopia was drawing to a close (UN IRIN 2 Dec. 2002). The Kunama are living in the refugee camp of Wa'ala Nihibi, near the town of Shiraro, in one of the most contested areas in the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia. According to a report from IRIN:

". . . their plight is a puzzle. Tens of thousand remain in Eritrea. Those who fled are mostly the population of two villages whose districts fell under the control of the Ethiopian army" (UN IRIN 2 Dec. 2002).

"Their flight, alongside the Ethiopian army which pulled back under the ceasefire agreement, sparked accusations that they had sided with the Ethiopians. Historically, Eritrea has questioned the Kunamas' support for independence from Ethiopia" (UN IRIN 2 Dec. 2002).

A United Nations Development Programme report on vulnerable populations affected by the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea provides the following information on the Kunama refugees and their recent situation:

"The Ethiopian offensive in 2000 together with problems such as marginalisation that minority ethnic groups usually face within national states, provoked migration starting in April 2000 towards the Shiraro area on Ethiopian territory. Today, some 4,000 Kunama refugees of Eritrean origin are gathered and living in a camp that was set up in August 2000. The camp is located 14 km north of Shiraro town on the Shiraro-Badme road and is the only existing refugee camp in Tigray Region. The governmental Administration for Refugees and Returnees Affairs (ARRA) and UNHCR administer the camp. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) provides technical assistance while WFP [World Food Programme] and DPPC [Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission of Ethiopian government] supply food. The camp is likely to be relocated in the near future approximately 13 km west of Shiraro in a place called 'Grat-Reda', further away from the future border line of the two countries. Most of the camp dwellers the mission found during the visit to the camp were women, children and elderly people. On the other hand, according to a UNHCR census of the camp population in November 2001, the demographic composition is different, i.e., male and female ratio is almost equal (49/51) and the middle aged, both male and female, make up almost 70% of the total registered camp population. The Kunama refugee representative of the camp told the UN-EUE [United Nations- Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia] mission that most middle-aged men are herding their livestock outside the camp during the day. These people are likely to remain with their refugee status in Ethiopia until final resolution of boundary and political issues. As agro-pastoralists, the Kunama refugees still possess livestock, mainly camels, goats and sheep, that are grazing in the area around the camp" (UNDP-EUE 21-30 Jan 2002).

An Ethiopian Humanitarian Update provides the following information on Kunama refugees residing at Wa'ala Nhibi:

"The Kunama refugees are sheltered in a makeshift camp at a place called Wa'ala Nhibi, about 13 km North of Sheraro town in the western zone of the Tigray National Regional State. The camp dwellers are a mix of herders, cultivators, craftspeople and urban dwellers. There is also a small group of formally educated persons. In view of potential insecurity at the site and expressed concerns of the regional authorities, a new alternative and much more secured site has been allocated by the authorities. The new site is named Grat Reda and is located at 10 km Southeast of Sheraro town and 85 km away from the Ethio-Eritrean border. UNHCR, ARRA [Administration for Refugees and Returnees Affairs] and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) are currently working on preparatory activities jointly drawn in the form of an action plan leading towards the transfer/relocation of the refugees to the new site" (Ethiopia Humanitarian Update 28 Feb 2002).

The refugees' situation has been made more tenuous by a UN decision that was pending at the end of 2002 to terminate refugee status for Eritreans: "The UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, is considering exempting the Kunama at Wa'ala Nihibi from this - but in the meantime their temporary existence continues as they anxiously await their fate" (UN IRIN 2 Dec 2002).  Two fires have destroyed the homes of thousands of Kunama refugees residing in Wa'ala Nhibi in recent months. The most recent fire occurred this month [May 2003] and one third of the homes at Wa'ala Nhibi camp were destroyed. The transfer of Kunama refugees from Wa'ala Nhibi is scheduled to take place in July 2003 (UN IRIN 9 May 2003).

This response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the RIC within time constraints. This response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum.


Amnesty International (AI). 2001. AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL REPORT 2001—"Eritrea." [Internet] URL: (Accessed 20 March 2003).

BBC News. 23 May 2000. "Free Rein for Eritrean Opposition," by regional analyst Patrick Gilkes. [Internet] URL: (Accessed 20 March 2003).

Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA). 2003. "The Kunama of Eritrea," by Sr. Christian Molidor. [Internet] URL: (Accessed 20 March 2003). 29 April 2003. "National Charter of the Eritrean National Alliance." [Internet] URL: (Accessed 8 May 2003). 1 March 2003. "Herui's Interview with the Division of Public Information." [Internet] URL: (Accessed 8 May 2003). May 2002. "Risti Ansti Ywagaala." [Internet] URL: (Accessed 20 March 2003). August 2001. "Religions in Eritrea." [Internet] URL: (Accessed 20 March 2003). 2001. "Customs and Traditions." [Internet] URL: (Accessed 20 March 2003).

Eritrean News Wire. 23 October 2002. "Eritrean opposition parties form alliance aimed at toppling government," by Associated Press Writer, Abebe Andualem. [Internet] URL: (Accessed 8 May 2003).

Esel-Initiative. No date. "The Kunama Ethnic Group." [Internet] URL: (Accessed 20 March 2003).

Ethiopia Humanitarian Update. 28 February 2002. "Focus on Kunama Refugees." [Internet] URL: (Accessed 27 April 2003).

Ethnologue. 2002. Ethnologue on the Web, "Kunama: a Language of Eritrea." [Internet] URL: (Accessed 20 March 2003).

Mehari, Sami. 27 October 2002. Nharnet articles, "Alliance Without the ELF-RC?" [Internet] URL: [Official website of the Eritrean Liberation Front-Revolutionary Council] (Accessed 8 May 2003).

Naty, Alexander. 2002. "Potential conflicts in the former Gash- Setit region, western Eritrea: threats to peace and security." [Internet] URL: (Accessed 20 March 2003).

"Political Charter of the Alliance of Eritrean National Forces." 6 March 1999. [Internet] URL: (Accessed 21 March 2003).

United Nations Development Programme - Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia [UNDP-EUE]. 21-30 January 2002. "Current situation and progress of humanitarian assistance to vulnerable population segments affected by the border conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray Region." [Internet] URL: 612546b3823ec385256b650066b948?OpenDocument (Accessed 27 April 2003).

United Nations Integrated Regional Information Network (UN IRIN). 9 May 2003. "Ethiopia: Fire again breaks out at refugee camp for Eritreans." [Internet] URL: (Accessed 9 May 2003).

United Nations Integrated Regional Information Network (UN IRIN). 2 December 2002. "Plight of the Kunama Refugees." [Internet] URL: (Accessed 20 March 2003).

United Nations Integrated Regional Information Network for Central and Eastern Africa (UN IRIN-CEA). 14 May 1999. "Horn of Africa: Armed faction and the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict." [Internet] URL: 5650a00557edf/da9fda798b865e7d85256772007829ce?OpenDocument (Accessed 20 March 2003).

United States, Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (US DOS). 31 March 2003. COUNTRY REPORTS ON HUMAN RIGHTS PRACTICES FOR 2002, "Eritrea." [Internet] URL: (Accessed 8 May 2003).

United States, Department of State (US DOS). 7 October 2002. INTERNATIONAL RELIGIOUS FREEDOM REPORT 2002—"Eritrea." [Internet] URL: (Accessed 20 March 2003).

United States, Department of State (US DOS), Office of the Senior Coordinator for International Women's Issues. 1 June 2001. ERITREA: REPORT ON FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION (FGM) OR FEMALE GENITAL CUTTING (FGC). [Internet] URL: (Accessed 20 March 2003).

Yohannes, Okbazghi. 1991. ERITREA: PAWN IN WORLD POLITICS (Gainesville: University of Florida Press).


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