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Refugees Magazine Issue 105 (Life in a refugee camp) - Faces of Hartisheik

Refugees Magazine Issue 105 (Life in a refugee camp) - Faces of Hartisheik
Refugees (105, III - 1996)

1 September 1996
Once one of the world's largest, the Somali refugee camp at Hartisheik has fallen on hard times. When the television cameras move on to other emergencies, UNHCR and the refugees remain, out of sight, out of mind.

Once one of the world's largest, the Somali refugee camp at Hartisheik has fallen on hard times. When the television cameras move on to other emergencies, UNHCR and the refugees remain, out of sight, out of mind.

The Somali refugee camp at Hartisheik, in a dusty corner of eastern Ethiopia, has fallen on hard times. The blue and white tarpaulins distributed by UNHCR in 1988 to enable the first wave of refugees to cover their dome-shaped huts, or tukuls, have been torn to shreds by the fierce winds that repeatedly lash the region. Today, the plastic sheeting has been replaced by tattered wheat sacks sewn together.

Once one of the largest refugee camps in the world, Hartisheik has been reduced to small clusters of ragged huts scattered over 15 kms of the Ethiopian frontier. About 59,000 Somalis remain there. They say they cannot go home because conditions in their country remain unstable. But international donor support for the 8-year-old camp and its struggling population continues to wane, and nearly everything is in short supply. The refugees get little food and water, and their plastic roof covers have not been replaced.

"We are told that the world has forgotten the Somalis here because of what's happening on the other side, in Somalia itself," says 37-year-old Mariam Abdi-Hassan. "They say there's too much fighting there. There is no reconciliation. But we are the victims of war. Why should we be punished for what is going on on the other side?"

Although no two refugee situations are identical, there are many others that parallel Hartisheik's sorry state. The scenario is often the same. When the appetite for news slows and the television cameras move on to other emergencies, UNHCR and the refugees remain - out of sight, out of mind. Aid operations shift from emergency status to routine care and maintenance programmes for the refugee population. The search for durable solutions - particularly repatriation - proves fruitless and, as time drags on, donor fatigue sets in. Lack of funding compels UNHCR to cut down on assistance programmes. First affected are unfortunately programmes for children - education and other support work. Eventually, the stage is reached when only "life-sustaining activities" can be carried out in the camps. A similar slide can occur when a refugee programme is winding down, and there are fewer compelling reasons for the refugees to remain in the camps.

What has happened in Hartisheik is now beginning to happen in Zaire and Tanzania, where increasingly frustrated donors see no solution in sight for some 1.7 million Rwandan refugees who continue to languish in huge border camps. On top of this frustration and declining interest, there is also the cold, hard reality that UNHCR has many other responsibilities around the world - some 26 million refugees, returnees and displaced persons in all.

The Somali refugees began arriving in Hartisheik in 1988, at the start of the rebellion against the Siad Barre regime that was triggered by various clans vying for power. By the time the government in Mogadishu fell in 1991 and famine subsequently swept the country, close to 1 million Somalis had fled to neighbouring countries. Of that peak number, about 600,000 came to Ethiopia, including 220,000 who settled in Hartisheik camp. The majority of these refugees have returned home spontaneously, but there still are some 426,000 in the asylum countries, including 275,000 in Hartisheik and seven other camps in Ethiopia. Kenya hosts 126,000 Somali refugees, Djibouti 20,000 and Yemen 5,000.

Every time a sign of peace emerged in Somalia and refugees in Ethiopia began going home spontaneously, UNHCR drew up repatriation plans. But each time these plans were about to be implemented, new clan skirmishes broke out; those who had gone back had to move again even before they could begin a new life.

The latest round of fighting occurred in November 1994 in Hargeisa, where the uprising against the Siad Barre regime had started six years earlier, and spread east to Burao. This resulted in a new influx of 90,000 refugees to Ethiopia and compelled UNHCR to abandon its repatriation programme scheduled for later that year. Money earmarked for repatriation was used to care for the new arrivals. Today, there are strong indications that order has been restored in many areas of Somalia over the past year, and once again UNHCR is pursuing its repatriation plans.

The north-west region, for example, has been relatively untouched by the continuing clan wars in the Mogadishu area in the southern part of Somalia. A breakaway Republic of Somaliland has been proclaimed in the north-west of the country. Officials in the north-west acknowledge that there still are tensions in some parts of the region, but on the whole a central administration is functioning and order has been restored.

Hargeisa is the capital of the self-proclaimed republic and is slowly rising from the ashes of war. There are no guns visible in the streets. The livestock market is bustling with merchants buying goats, camels and cattle to be taken to the port cities of Berbera and Djibouti for export to the Middle East. Buildings are being constructed in the nearby city of Boroma.

Most of the refugees in Hartisheik and other camps in eastern Ethiopia - Teferi Ber, Kebri Beyah, Darwanaji, Camaboker, Rabasso, Daror and Aisha - originated from Hargeisa and other urban centres in north-west Somalia. They often visit their home towns in Somalia and report that travel by bus or on foot is safe.

On a bright July morning along the dirt road from Teferi Ber, a group of Somali refugees was heading toward the town of Boroma in Somalia to sell sacks of wheat flour loaded on the backs of six donkeys. They said they purchase the wheat from their fellow refugees and travel to Boroma once every two weeks to sell it and buy goods which they then sell at the refugee camp in Ethiopia.

At another border crossing point in north-west Somalia, a Somali woman refugee was walking back to Darwanaji camp in Ethiopia after a visit to Boroma to ask for help from an uncle. She said she visits her uncle in Boroma, a half day's walk, once every three months.

Local officials in north-west Somalia say the security situation in the region has improved markedly in recent months. There have been no reports of major clan fighting, but there are still threats of clashes that can prevent return. At least three people were treated for wounds sustained in land mine explosions over the past several months. More than a million land mines litter Somalia, and regularly cause casualties. A British agency, Rimfire, in coordination first with UNHCR and later with the U.N. Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM), conducted mine clearance in the country, including the Hargeisa region, beginning in 1992. UNHCR contributed equipment and protective clothing to Rimfire, which also trained local staff to do the job. Authorities in Hargeisa now say the army is dealing with the problem, but point out that getting rid of mines is a difficult and costly exercise. They say residents know where these mines are and try to avoid them.

Without official recognition and assistance, the breakaway government has done a remarkable job of rebuilding from scratch. It has appealed for development funds, saying that rehabilitation and repatriation programmes must go hand in hand.

"There are not only physical mines, but also psychological mines that are preventing us from doing more for our people," said Mohammed Barud Ali, a Dutch-educated engineer who is minister of resettlement, rehabilitation and reconstruction in the self-styled republic. Ali, who lived an exile's life in the United States for eight years, holds office at the former national security building where he was once detained and tortured by the ousted Siad Barre government.

Ali said he was aware that only the well-off refugees had repatriated and that the poor remained in the camps. Unemployment is high in north-west Somalia and for refugees to return and stay it is essential that livelihood opportunities be created for them, he said.

As part of preparations for repatriation, UNHCR has spent $13.8 million in north-west Somalia on "quick impact projects," or QIPs, since 1992. These projects include the construction or repair of hospitals, schools, water systems and facilities at border entry points where returnees will be received once the repatriation programme gets off the ground. But a lot more has to be done in Somalia to rebuild the ruined infrastructure, provide jobs and create opportunities for returnees and residents alike.

In a series of meetings, Tarik Muftic, UNHCR's repatriation officer in Jijiga, Ethiopia, urged Somali refugees to visit their homes in north-west Somalia and find out for themselves whether it is time to return. He said funds for the refugees were drying up and they could not count indefinitely on donor assistance.

"There is no more reason for some of these refugees to stay," he said. "But those who cannot go back because of the security situation in their villages can remain in the camps." And then, he says, donors should have a closer look at their conditions and be assured that they are providing assistance from a purely humanitarian perspective. The stories on the following pages were written by UNHCR staffers Fernando del Mundo, Peter Kessler and Mahary Maasho, who, along with photographer Wendy Stone, spent a week in Hartisheik and the surrounding area examining every aspect of life in a refugee camp.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 105 (1996)