As UNHCR struggles with funding shortfall, refugee asks, "Do I still have a future?"
GENDEMA, Sierra Leone, October 22 (UNHCR) - Lightning has struck thrice for 33-year-old Ibrahim Amah, a Liberian refugee who has had to flee for his life three times in the last six months. Bracing himself for the next storm as he huddles under a roof with 40 other refugees, he laments, "Do I still have a future?"
It is a question many refugees are asking as the UN refugee agency struggles with a fourth-quarter funding shortfall that is affecting its operations worldwide, especially in Africa.
Amah is the human face of the international community's failure to fund essential programmes for refugees. He and his family come from the Cape Mount area of Golakanneh district in Liberia. In April this year, they fled fighting between rebels and the government forces, arriving in Liberia's Sinje camp near the border with Sierra Lone.
In mid-May, rebels attacked Lofa Bridge and there were rumours they were headed for Sinje camp. Amah decided not to take chances or risk his family's lives by staying at Sinje, so they walked for three days to Sierra Leone. At Gendema crossing point in Sierra Leone's Pujehun district, they were registered and assisted by officials from the UN refugee agency, who moved them to Taiama camp in Moyamba district, where he currently lives with about 7,000 other Liberian refugees.
Taiama refugee camp was the first camp to be established primarily for Sierra Leonean returnees who were unable to go home immediately for safety reasons during the country's brutal civil war. The conflict lasted almost a decade and ended this year. Most of the refugees who arrived earlier in the year are hosted in Taiama camp.
As a trained schoolteacher, Amah taught at a primary school in the camp and contributed his meagre income towards improving his family's dismal living conditions. Life was tough as they struggled to make ends meet.
But nothing prepared him for the shock he received on the night of the September 28. "I was in the house with my wife, and our three children. We went to bed at about 9 pm," he recalls.
About half an hour later, a fierce storm hit Taiama camp, lashing it with heavy rain, thunder and lightning. Amah's house was struck by lightning and he found himself on the ground with his eldest son, Jefferson. After overcoming his initial fright, he noticed that one of the corners of his roof was on fire and tried to put it out in vain.
As his children were wailing and screaming, his wife lay still on the bed as if nothing had happened. He called out to her frantically while fighting the fire, but she did not answer. "It was then that I shook her and tried to wake her. I was confused and I ran out to call the neighbours to come to my aid," says Amah. His neighbours responded quickly but it was too late - Amah's wife was already dead.
"I didn't know what to do.... I myself was recovering from the shock and I had received burns all over my body." Amah was slightly burned by the effects of the lightning strike, but his eight-month-old daughter Baintu was severely burned on her face and stomach. His two sons - Davidson, six, and Jefferson, nine - were also injured and were referred to the hospital for further treatment.
To make matters worse, their shelter was destroyed and Amah had to find money for his wife's funeral arrangements. Everything was happening all at once, throwing him into complete despair. He is now solely responsible for the care of his three children, the youngest of whom is still breastfeeding. He is worried that the incident will affect his performance as a teacher and he is unsure how he can teach and take care of the young ones at the same time.
Considering the funding shortfall UNHCR is facing this year, it will be hard for Amah and his children to receive another individual shelter. The family has now been relocated to a transit booth planned for 10 people but shared with 40. The recent storm destroyed 58 other permanent shelters for individual families, and ripped the roofs off two transit booths that housed about 40 people each.
To date, more than 3,000 people have been relocated to transit booths, where refugees are supposed to live for a few days or weeks as they construct their permanent shelters. But at Taiama camp, the booths have hosted thousands of refugees for over two months now. The few existing shelters are in a dilapidated state - the mud walls are slowly disintegrating, temporarily held together by grass.
Amah wants to move on: "I want to move to another camp and start afresh. It affects me psychologically to see what's remained of my house. I don't want to remember that day."
His plea for relocation may sound simple, but it is actually quite hard to accomplish due to the lack of funds. Of the seven camps in Sierra Leone, six have reached their maximum capacity and a large number of people in these camps have been living in transit booths for over a month. There is also the additional strain caused by sudden influxes, as when some 3,400 refugees came into Sierra Leone through Kailahun district in early October. Part of these new arrivals are currently being hosted at way stations while UNHCR seeks more permanent and suitable solutions for them.
A good number has been absorbed into a new camp in Bo district. Largo camp should have a maximum capacity of about 7,000, but can accommodate only 1,800 for now. Expansion plans have been threatened by the funding shortage.
Africa is one of the most under-funded regions in UNHCR's global operations. Central and West Africa are currently under-funded by almost 20 percent. The situation looks set to worsen with the refugee agency's announcement today of an $80-million budget shortfall till the end of 2002. This means that if funds are not forthcoming by the end of October, the agency may be forced to cut a number of operations worldwide starting in November.
"Our most pressing needs are clearly in Africa right now," said UNHCR chief Ruud Lubbers on Tuesday in a call to donors for immediate funding. "We have numerous protracted refugee situations there that are largely forgotten by the international community, as well as several new crises in West Africa, the Great Lakes and the East and Horn. Many of our programmes in Africa and elsewhere were already struggling because of previous budget cuts."
The planned or already completed budget cuts mean that Eritrean refugees would no longer benefit from water, health, education and agricultural projects, and that security in Tanzanian camps could be reduced. The cuts also mean that children in the Caucasus would not be getting winter clothes and that refugees in Thailand and Papua New Guinea currently staying in insecure border regions would not be relocated as planned.
Meanwhile, under a makeshift shelter in Sierra Leone, Amah and his family pray that the storm will blow over soon. With his baby daughter in his arms and two young sons tugging along behind him, he says, "I thank God for the UNHCR assistance that I have received so far. I am not complaining. But now I need a house, please help me!"