Refugees Magazine Issue 105 (Life in a refugee camp) - The last to leave

A large majority of the Somali refugees - the pastoral nomads and the affluent - have returned spontaneously to their country. The very poor are stuck in refugee camps.

A large majority of the Somali refugees - the pastoral nomads and the affluent - have returned spontaneously to their country. The very poor are stuck in refugee camps.

Amenah Abdi came to Hartisheik in 1988 when a rebellion broke out in north-west Somalia and forced her family of seven to flee. She was then 12 years old and was among the mainly women and children who swept into Ethiopia at the rate of 4,000 a day over a three-month period beginning in May.

Now a young mother of two children, Amenah Abdi remains at Hartisheik, waiting for an opportunity to return to Somalia. She has been abandoned by her husband but feels that if she could get some assistance to help her earn a living she could start life all over again in her country.

Amenah Abdi's eyes light up reminiscing about the good times she had growing up in Hargeisa, Somalia's second largest city. She misses "drinking milk, playing with my brothers." She longs for the comforts of city life that are now denied her two sons, one of whom is suffering from tuberculosis and has been confined at the Hartisheik hospital for 25 days.

Amenah Abdi shares an urban background with most of the 59,000 Somali refugees in Hartisheik. They are former civil servants, shop owners, skilled workers and professionals. Women comprise 22.4 percent of the population, men 22.7 percent and children aged 18 and below 54.7 percent. The breakdown reflects roughly the demographic picture of the 275,994 Somalis in the eight refugee camps in Ethiopia.

A large majority of the several hundred thousand Somali refugees who initially came to Hartisheik were pastoral nomads who had returned to Somalia spontaneously. The more affluent Somali refugees who have money and capital are also back in their country and have set up shops.

But the very poor like Amenah Abdi are stuck in Hartisheik.

Amenah Abdi tried to go home to Hargeisa in early 1994. But clan fighting broke out later that year and she had to return to Hartisheik.

She is particularly vulnerable because she heads a household alone. There are many women like her in the camps whose husbands either are dead or have abandoned them. Special programmes are drawn up for these female heads of households, but their number cannot be pinpointed because no extensive census has been conducted in recent years.

Another victim of that 1994 fighting was Hinda Mohammad, who had to flee to Hartisheik with her husband and newborn daughter. She had managed to live in Hargeisa despite the turmoil of the earlier years, but the 1994 clashes forced her to become a refugee.

"I was living with friends. There was no food. My situation became so desperate. I had to go to a place where I could get some help," said Hinda.

Unfortunately, Hinda arrived in January 1995, when government officials stopped registering refugees for food rations after peace returned to large parts of the Hargeisa region. The officials say even local Ethiopians attempted to register as refugees and that it is very difficult to distinguish locals from refugees. There are suspicions that a large number of the inhabitants of Hartisheik and other refugee camps are locals.

So, Hinda is helped by neighbours who receive regular food rations. To supplement her food needs, Hinda tends a corn and vegetable garden beside her hut. Her husband has a wheelbarrow and sells water to other refugee families. He earns 3 to 4 birrs a day - about 60 U.S. cents - when there is enough demand. The money is used to buy kerosene for the lamp, sugar and tea and a cup of milk for their child.

"During the rainy season, when we can make money delivering water, there is one - maybe two - meals a day. But in summer, when there's not enough water and no work to do, we spend a day without eating. We stay in the hut, lie down and sleep," said Hinda.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 105 (1996)