Refugees Magazine, 1 September 1994
Whether approached from the air or by land, Benaco camp is impressive. Blue UNHCR plastic sheeting, covering tens of thousands of makeshift huts, contrasts with the lush green landscape for as far as the eye can see.
On 28 April, some 250,000 Rwandese flooded into Tanzania near the town of Ngara in one single human wave – at the time, it was the biggest and fastest refugee movement UNHCR had ever witnessed.
"On that day, we took the road leading to the border to evaluate the situation," recalled Maureen Connelly, in charge of the UNHCR Emergency Unit in Tanzania. "Suddenly, we were facing a line of refugees 8-12 kilometres long. Nobody expected it. Our car couldn't go on. There were people everywhere."
Jacques Franquin, coordinator of UNHCR activities in Ngara, remembers his initial reaction to the huge influx was to call his NGO colleagues. "The Rusumo road was just one compact mass of people, like a flow of lava descending inexorably toward the Tanzanian border," Franquin said. "I rushed to my radio and called Médecins Sans Frontières to quickly send us reinforcements, supplies and, above all, a water provision specialist. Joel Boulanger of MSF jumped into a car and arrived at Benaco together with David Trevino, also of MSF. They worked all night to provide a minimum of drinking water to the refugees."
Thanks to constant cooperation from non-governmental organizations, UNHCR managed to cope with the arrival of this human tide and saved many lives.
"The cooperation between UNHCR and the NGOs in this emergency situation was almost perfect," said Franquin. "We had an enormous advantage. We were already here and waiting. So were the NGOs. We had been working together on a project for Burundi refugees and knew each other well. So it was very easy to get organized and deal with the exodus of Rwandese. Because of this, we gained a lot of time. In similar situations, the UNHCR and NGO teams are not really operational until two or three weeks after arriving. In this case, we could respond from the first day on. We gained three precious weeks."
"You can't set up a town of 250,000 inhabitants like the camp at Benaco without a lot of help," Connelly added. "And I think what was done was beyond what one could ever have imagined. The task accomplished by a rather reduced number of aid workers was a miracle."
But the choice of Benaco hill as the site of what was then the world's biggest refugee camp had nothing to do with chance. There is an artificial lake at the foot of the site. Every day, a million litres of water are pumped from it and treated before being distributed to the refugees. Each person gets five litres of drinking water per day, which is too little by UNHCR standards but enough, it seems, to fill the needs of the camp. The MSF and Oxfam teams handle the treatment and distribution of water.
More than 15 NGOs work at the Benaco site. Each one is a piece of a puzzle managed by UNHCR, and each one has its speciality.
The management of fresh and non-perishable food stocks has been assigned to CARE, which supplies the other agencies responsible for actual distribution to the refugees.
Concern, an Irish NGO, helps take care of camp management, while MSF Netherlands is responsible for the construction of latrines. Tanganyika Christian Refugee Services provides transportation.
Most certainly, the presence at Benaco of UNHCR and the NGOs from the very start of the crisis made it possible to avoid a catastrophe. But chance too played a part.
For once, the refugees did not set out in a hurry, and were able to flee with enough supplies to get them through the first few crucial days of the crisis. This was not the first time many of them had fled turmoil in the troubled region, and their past experience taught them to take along some vital supplies; a jerry can of water, a little food – enough to keep going until the arrival of the first convoys of food aid. This gave the international community a few extra hours to mobilize.
A tremendous humanitarian operation was started up in record time, thanks in part to convenient positioning of equipment and supplies. The European Community, for example, interrupted the construction of a road it was financing in the Ngara region and diverted the engineering equipment to Benaco.
"Without the help of this construction company," Connelly said, "we could never have organized the Benaco site so quickly. We should always be able to count on such a team and on engineering material for all large-scale emergency operations like this one."
Despite the early successes, the battle has not yet been won. Big problems are an everyday fact of life here. Just to avoid starvation, some 200 tons of food must be shipped to Benaco each and every day.
"It's a very challenging task," said Marco Onorado, of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), which is responsible for food distribution. "We can only distribute food to 100,000 people a day. So we give them their rations for three days – corn, beans, and sometimes oil."
At the beginning of the crisis, trucks were unloaded and their cargo distributed immediately. It was all done outdoors. There were no reserve stocks or storehouses. Today, huge tents have been erected as storage facilities, each holding up to 400 tons of supplies.
But the situation is nonetheless fragile. "With a population at the camp that doesn't stop growing, we are always in a precarious situation," said the IFRC's Onorado. "The provisions depend mainly on the World Food Programme (WFP), which very often can't tell us exactly what's in the pipeline. Our worry is running out of supplies."
As WFP knows all too well, logistics can be a nightmare in a country as big as Tanzania, where road and rail systems leave much to be desired – particularly in remote areas like Ngara.
Supplying the camp with fresh provisions is only the tip of a monstrous iceberg. Add to that the problems of hygiene, the prevention of epidemics, the search for new sources of water, and the security problems inherent in a population of hundreds of thousands of refugees, and you get an idea of the enormity of the task.
Each NGO has a well-defined role at Benaco, a role that should not duplicate or interfere with the work of others. In theory, such clearly defined job descriptions should eliminate most problems. But theory does not always reflect reality. Hans Husselman, a UNHCR consultant on water problems, often has to resolve this dilemma. "One NGO drills successfully for underground water and, as a rule, another one is to install the pumps and take care of distribution," Husselman said. "The organization that found the water is, of course, tempted to give its opinion on the best way to manage the natural resources it helped discover. In the last resort, it is up to me to settle differences, but all that takes diplomacy."
The stakes are, in fact, important for the NGOs. Benaco camp, which rapidly became one of the largest "cities" in Tanzania, is a showcase for the organizations working there. Not a day goes by without a visit by an official delegation. Knowing that their financial resources depend essentially on donations, are some NGOs inclined to want to do too much, creating rivalries? "No," is the emphatic reply from UNHCR's Connelly. "Confronted with the sheer size of the task, everyone is too busy just trying to deal with the most immediate, urgent work. There's no time to create new problems. My only fear is for the future. The teams will change and the cooperative spirit that prevailed in the beginning could perhaps disappear."
The NGOs agree. "In an emergency situation like this one," Gary McClain of CARE points out, "there is no place for rivalry. Everyone goes ahead and does his job. We don't have time for politics. What is happening here is an excellent example of the response one can make to an emergency situation when everybody works together."
Connelly says meetings and more meetings are essential for resolving problems and facilitating communication between UNHCR and the NGOs. They not only serve to reduce tensions but also to fix priorities and establish common strategies.
At Benaco, for example, the health unit meets twice a week. And on Tuesdays and Saturdays, a coordination meeting brings together representatives from all NGOs and UNHCR. "I have at least three meetings a day, most often five," said Anne Vincent of MSF. "It's a heavy meeting schedule, but it's also indispensable if one wants information to circulate. Meetings are the ideal tool for harmonizing the work of the different NGOs. There are no miracles, and these meetings are necessary."
With a population of hundreds of thousands, Benaco is on the verge of suffocating. To help ease the congestion, new camps are being created – Lumasi, Msuhura and Kayonza.
So the work goes on, day by day, problem by problem. So far, UNHCR and its NGO partners have more than met the challenge.