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Refugees, and Their Hosts, Grow Restless

Africa: Warring factions make home unlivable for displaced Somalis. But camps in Kenya, often short on supplies, offer an uncomfortable alternative.


DADAAB, Kenya — Abshira Aden is fed up with not being able to go where she wants, when she wants. She's sick of having to wait in line twice a month for food that always runs short. And she's tired of doing nothing for most of the day.

She can't wait to leave behind her 11-year life as a refugee in flat, sun-baked northeastern Kenya and return home to a peaceful Somalia, only 45 miles away.

Aden was among the tens of thousands of people who fled to Kenya in 1991 when rival Somali factions overthrew the government of President Mohamed Siad Barre, then turned on each other. Somalia is still without a stable government, and many areas remain unsafe.

Across Africa, there are an estimated 13.1 million refugees and people displaced within their own countries by long-standing conflicts like the one in Somalia.

"If a person eats but has nothing to do, there is no difference between him or her and an animal," said Aden, the women's leader at the Dagahaley refugee camp, about 310 miles northeast of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. "If the situation improved back home, we would return without waiting to be repatriated by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees."

The head of Dagahaley camp, Hassan Dagane, would like to see an international military force tame Somalia's warring factions and establish a nationwide government. That would be far cheaper, he argues, than what it costs to maintain the camps for Somali refugees.

Dagahaley is one of three camps in the Dadaab sector, where temperatures easily reach 100 degrees and it rarely rains. The conglomerations of hovels made of sticks and plastic sheeting sprawl over 19 square miles and house about 135,300 refugees, who also include Sudanese, Ethiopians and some Ugandans.

Years of caring for African refugees have strained the budgets of the U.N. refugee agency and other humanitarian groups as well as the hospitality of host countries.

Rations given out by the World Food Program have been reduced, and each month, individuals receive enough food for only about 20 days.

Camp residents receive corn, wheat flour, beans, vegetable oil, salt and a corn soya flour. But aid workers note that corn, known as maize in this part of the world, isn't even part of Somalis' usual diet.

"We understand that maize doesn't constitute the traditional diet of the Somalis," said Aisha Daisy Buruku, head of the U.N. refugee operation in the Dadaab area. "We are also aware that the food basket, even in terms of quantity, has not been what it is supposed to be."

Buruku blamed a falloff in help from wealthy nations.

A spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency, Emmanuel Nyabera, said its operating budget for Kenya dropped from $23.4 million in 1999 to $15 million last year.

Among industrial nations, only Japan has boosted its contribution to U.N. refugee activities in sub-Saharan Africa, said Noriko Takada, spokeswoman for the Japanese Foreign Ministry. And that rose just from $39.2 million in 1999 to $44.4 million last year.

Other major donors have cut back but won't say why. Some people speculate that donations have been hurt by allegations that local staff at refugee camps in Guinea and Sierra Leone in West Africa routinely demand sex for food.

The Kenya camps also draw numerous complaints from government officials.

President Daniel Arap Moi contends the camps at Dadaab and Kakuma, where an additional 95,000 refugees live, provide cover for bandits and arms smugglers from Somalia.

Local officials say the refugees damage the environment, mainly by chopping down trees for firewood.

To address that problem, and reduce the need for women and girls from the camps to gather firewood in an area rife with banditry, the German Development Cooperation agency buys firewood from local Kenyans and gives it to the refugees.

Refugees are also causing strains in neighboring Tanzania, which is host to more than 500,000 Rwandan, Burundian and Congolese refugees in U.N. camps and 470,000 more living in villages.

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