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Somalis Are Trapped by Two Wars

Refugees who fled to Ethiopia face the very anarchy and hunger they had hoped to escape

THE ashes are cold in the cooking fire in Amina Warsame's hut. Although it is already afternoon, it is obvious that no one in the Somali refugee's family has prepared any food that day.

Inside Amina's hut, a six-foot-high structure of sticks and tattered fabric, are only a couple of blankets, a few cooking utensils, and a meager supply of grain in a sack. With enough room in the hut for only one or two people, most of the family sleep outside at night - as do thousands of others in the crowded Teferi Bar refugee camp, which lies a few miles from the Somali border inside Ethiopia.

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"We don't get enough food," says Amina's 20-year-old daughter, Halima Osman, whose pretty face is partially obscured by shadows inside the hut. She had fallen ill the week before and is too weak to come out to be photographed with her mother and four siblings.

United Nations food deliveries to the hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees in Ethiopia have been irregular and, according to refugees, inadequate.

UN sources say this is because not enough food has been donated by member countries to relieve the hunger that is sweeping much of the area known as the Horn of Africa.

Hundreds of thousands of Somali civilians have poured into Ethiopia in recent months. In January, after weeks of fighting that nearly destroyed the capital, Mogadishu, Somali rebels overthrew the government of Mohamed Siad Barre.

Civil war in Ethiopia has complicated relief efforts further. Since Ethiopian rebels took over the capital, Addis Ababa, on May 28, food deliveries reportedly have come to a standstill throughout the region.

According to numerous sources, this is because fleeing Ethiopian troops have been holding up and robbing trucks carrying food, water, and relief supplies.

Even before the recent disruption of food deliveries, however, rations in camps in eastern Ethiopia were only about 20 percent of normal UN standards.

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Added to the 600,000 Somali refugees seeking to escape political violence and near-anarchy in their homeland is another burden: About 200,000 Ethiopians who had crossed into Somalia to escape drought and civil war in the 1980s are returning - and are now homeless in their own country.

While prospects for food and safety in Somalia are uncertain, some Somali refugees are willing to risk returning since, they say, conditions in Ethiopia have become intolerable.

An official with the US relief agency, CARE, reports that several thousand Somali refugees are heading back to Somalia. But according to Hiram Ruiz of the US Committee for Refugees, recently back from a trip to northern Somalia, returning refugees are likely to find their homes have been destroyed.

"There is also no food or clean water, and only limited health care," Mr. Ruiz says. And Hargeisa, home of many of the refugees, is still unsafe due to the many land mines left from the war, he adds.

So, for now, it seems, refugees like Amina and her family are running out of places to run to.

Life was better until just a few months ago, before Somalia's civil war intensified. Amina and her husband, Osman Bashi, were farmers, living along the Somali-Ethiopian border. They had a modest home, belongings, and livestock. Halima, the daughter, had a job as a domestic servant in the town of Hargeisa.

They were poor, but they were safe - until the war came to their doorstep.

Amina recounts the story: "One day we were attacked by soldiers with guns. They took all our property by force, including clothes, animals and other things, and our house. All that's left for us is the children."

"I decided to walk to this place for peace and food," she says.

The family has recently heard that there is relative peace in northern Somalia - news that sparks some debate.

"Why should I go back to Somalia where I don't have shelter or anything else to live on?" Halima, the daughter, asks.

Her mother, however, is firm: "If we get food and shelter, we won't spend another night here," she says.

Meanwhile, dozens of curious refugees have gathered outside the hut. Only the low, bramble-branch fence surrounding their compound of several huts of relatives and friends keeps the curious from surging closer.

Children crowd around visitors. I stop to record their laughter and shouts, and then play them back. The crowd grows rapidly to several hundred children, pressing forward, almost trampling a child who has fallen down.

Setting him on his feet, I retreat to the relative protection of the fenced-off hospital area.

At least in this camp, two hours by dirt road from Jijiga, many children still have the energy to play. At another location, a squatter's camp of Ethiopian drought victims, starvation is widespread and visible. The children are too weak to show interest in visitors.

Malnutrition among children under five in the camps is running at nearly 50 percent, says George Labor, an official here with the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

In this camp, the weakest are taken to hospital tents. Most of the mothers and babies lie on green plastic sheeting on the ground and are given supplemental food.

One relief official claims the now-deposed Ethiopian government had been stealing 40 percent of the food intended for the camps, primarily to feed its military. A Western relief official says the amount siphoned off was "significant," but acknowledges he has no way to measure it.

A UNHCR official, however, denies the charges against Ethiopia's former government.

Last month, rebel and clan leaders in Somalia's north declared the region's independence from the south of the country. There is historical precedent for the split: Before independence, northern Somalia was ruled by the British and the south by Italy.

The northerners resent southern rebels' claims to be in charge of an interim government for the whole country and have long chafed under years of neglect by the deposed Barre government.

While fighting continues in the south, relative calm has returned to the north, UN officials say. Trade and commerce are picking up again in the north, says Saleh Dabbakeh, a UNICEF official.

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