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Somolia Alimatan camp changes -- and it's for the better

FIVE years ago, the refugee camp at Alimatan was a ramshackle sprawl of pitiful nomad huts and hastily-erected relief tents. As with so many refugee emergencies around the world, it was a scene of impromptu ``coping,'' but also dedication, concern, and basic survival. United Nations field personnel struggled to ensure that at least enough basic food supplies were trucked in to keep people alive.

Since last visiting the refugee camps of Lugh, provincial capital of southwest Somalia's sparse Gedo region, in 1980, I recently returned to see how things have changed. The contrasts were visibly dramatic.

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The original akuls, cramped, dome-shaped structures made from branches, cardboard, sacking, and pieces of canvas, have been largely replaced by spacious mud, wattle, and woven straw huts. Virtually every compound has planted one or two shade trees, offsetting the bleakness of the surrounding scrubland.

Gone, too, are the tents of the health centers. In their place are concrete and stone buildings and two primary schools. A more efficient and economic water purification system based on sand filtration has also been installed.

Perhaps most striking, however, are the children. Hordes of laughing boys and girls, many of them born here in exile, follow one around shouting English phrases learned at school. Some gleefully toss small stones to attract your attention, or tow home-made cars, constructed out of twisted pieces of tin from donated vegetable oil cans, or roll metal hoops through the dust. Their boisterousness contrasts poignantly with the sick and malnourished children I remember from before.

Bazaar stalls and teashops now line the main road leading into the settlement. Vendors sell everything from bars of soap to packs of spaghetti and rolls of cloth. Sitting under huge acacia trees, groups of women wearing colorful guntimos (robes) sell home-grown produce -- tomatoes, corn, eggs, and papayas.

Compared to the earlier days, relief logistics have also improved. In order to supply the some 132,000 refugees living in eight camps along the Juba river, most goods -- food, medicine, spare parts, petrol, etc. -- must still be brought in by truck from Mogadishu. CARE, the American agency responsible for running Somalia's Emergency Logistics Unit (ELU), has streamlined its operations to the point that aid arrives regularly.

But the wear on trucks caused by the country's poor road system is so extensive that a new fleet of vehicles has become a necessity. ``Ideally,'' said Milo Kamstra, ELU director in the capital, ``better roads would prolong the working life of our vehicles. People sometimes forget how rugged conditions can get out here.''

Another problem is deforestation. In 1980, women and children were already trekking for miles in search of firewood. Areas around the camps were completely stripped of brush and turned into dustbowls.

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Today, the situation is far worse, but some attempts -- limited ones -- are being made to plant trees.

In 1983, the relief agency, Interchurch Response, launched a project aimed at getting refugees to grow trees. According to Nur Abdul Qadar, now project manager at Lugh, the agency at first tried to get people to dig holes and plant seeds.

``But the seedlings were eaten by insects,'' he said. So it developed a step-by-step program with participants planting seeds in protective plastic tubes. If the plants grew to about a foot and a half, the refugees were paid two Somali shillings (3 cents) for each and given more containers. The project was so successful that 21,000 refugees joined up.

The project has had its setbacks, such as recent drought, and is proceeding slowly. Results are already evident. The welcome shade trees at Alimatan are but one example. The program, now being taken over by US AID, is seeking to reforest some 240 hectares of ravaged land. It also hopes to plant more trees and windbreaks for the town itself to ensure that everyone benefits.

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