Akabar refugee camp, Somalia
The nearly dried up river bed that bisects the camp serves as both wash area for the women . . . and an open sewer. Children splash and roll about in ankle- deep puddles. A soft breeze blows down from the undulating hills littered with the remains of what was once thick shrubland, now denuded for firewood.
"Water and malnutrition are the main problems," says a camp doctor. "Drinking water has to be brought in from a well one mile away, and the [50,000] refugees must be persuaded not to drink straight from the river."
Somalia's refugee situation, the outcome of bitter warfare in neighboring Ethiopia, is not just an emergency -- it is a disaster:
* One out of every three inhabitants of this East African nation is a refugee.
* An estimated 7,000 new arrivals pour in each week.
* Up to 300 refugees die every day.
Making mattes worse still is the long-lasting drought now stunting crops and vegetation across much of East Africa.
"The Somali economy has been turned totally upside down," says a UNICEF representative in Mogadishu. "There are serious food and medical shortages, and educational facilities are totally overburdened."
With more than 1.7 million refugees, roughly half of them living in camps along the border areas, Somalia suffers from the world's largest refugee concentration. Pakistan comes a close second with about 1.5 million Afghan asylum seekers.
Some relief officials consider Somalia the worst refugee crisis since Biafra's attempted secession from Nigeria -- and relief officials complain that international aid to Somalia is falling dangerously short.
Food and health conditions in the overcrowded, savanna camps of this East African country have improved since early spring. But the sheer size of the refugee population and the precarious logistical problems involved in keeping the country's 32 camps adequately supplied pose serious threats to their continued survival.
At least 450 metric tons of food are required per day to provide the refugees in camps with a minimum diet. This quota is barely fulfilled. Relief officials warn that pledged food supplies may fall short of requirements for 1980 by 50, 000 tons or more. Tens of thousands could starve. Because Somalia produces little food of its own, supplies must be imported, then trucked from ports to the interior along hundreds of miles of roads and dirt tracks.
The Iran-Iraq conflict has further complicated the situation by endangering Somalia's already limited gasoline supplies. "We have enough food for basic emergency rations and could probably hold out for 10 days or so with present stores," notes a US aid official. If the system were to break down, there would be trouble, he says.
International relief efforts in Somalia are a hand-to-mouth operation. Somali government officials are dismayed by the West's comparative lack of response to their plight. Relief workers are equally dismayed that a large portion of the refugee aid -- 60 percent of it from the US this year -- has reportedly found its way into military and civilian hands.
"Compared to the Indo-Chinese," notes one government minister, "we are being treated like dogs in a gutte. You throw us some scraps occasionally just to keep us quiet and ease your conscience."
More than 92 percent of the refugees in Somalia are women and children.The men, they say, are either fighting with the liberation movements in Ethiopia against the Soviet- backed regime of Mengistu Haile-Mariam or tending their cattle, camels, and goats back in the disputed Ogaden region. Some observers allege that many serve as regulars in the Somali armed forces, an accusation heatedly denied by government officials.
It is difficult to determine how many of Somalia's refugees are victims of war and how many are victims of drought. Both take a toll.
At Dam refugee camp in northwestern Somalia, Noora Hassan claims that she fled the Ogaden to Somalia with her four children because of Ethiopian attacks.
"Our homes were destroyed by tanks and planes," she says, clutching a child as she stands outside a hut of tarpaulin, cardboard, sticks, mud, and hide. "My husband is still fighting there, but we can't go back. It is too dangerous and there is no food."
Refugee influxes dropped during the summer to several hundred a day. But recent fighting and acute hunger have driven the weekly toll of new arrivals back up to 7,000.
Their future is not bright. The present war and famine conditions offer little hope for them to return. But there is also little hope of their being inegrated into Somalia's destitute economy, one of the poorest in the world.
The refugees in Somalia, in fact, are in danger of becoming the outcast Palestinians of East Africa. The Somali regime is against permanently resettling them here. That would undermine its ambition to assert its own sovereignty over the Ogaden, presently administered by Ethiopia. Most of the refugees are ethnic Somalis; their roots in the Ogaden are a basis of Somalia's claim to the region. President Barre maintains that the Ethiopia must permit ethnic Somalis in the region to decide their own destiny.
"The best solution is obviously for these people to eventually go back," says a UNHCR official. "But in the meantime we would like to introduce greater self-sufficiency among the refugees, rather than have them live off handouts."
Hence, relief agencies are helping the government organize courses for women on the problems of domestic economy and child care. The government is providing teachers to help give primary education to at least 70,000 refugee children.