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Feature: Refugee infrastructure benefits local population in east Sudan

Feature: Refugee infrastructure benefits local population in east Sudan

Eastern Sudan used to host up to 1 million Eritrean refugees, which affected the area's environment and economy. But now that the majority have gone home, their host communities are benefiting from efforts to reforest land, rehabilitate hospitals and train people to make better use of the area's natural resources.
6 October 2004
This nursery project helps women in eastern Sudan's Mafaza town earn a living by giving them seeds and buying the seedlings back from them.

MAFAZA, Sudan (UNHCR) - Bashir proudly shows his visitors where his simsim (sesame) and sorghum are growing in the shade of young trees. Everything grows faster under these trees and crops do not dry out as easily, explains the farmer in Mafaza, a small town in poverty-stricken eastern Sudan, some 400 km south-east of Khartoum.

For 40 years, this region housed up to a million Eritrean refugees. Now, as UNHCR moves towards the closure of refugee camps, the local population is benefiting from a substantial rehabilitation programme and infrastructure left by the refugees.

The presence of so many refugees in this semi-arid area with its limited natural resources caused a lot of damage to the environment, says UNHCR environmental rehabilitation officer Cleophas Mubangizi. "We are now making every effort to rehabilitate the area," he says, adding that more than 16,000 hectares of land have already been reforested in a joint effort with the government, donors and local communities.

Farmers like Bashir have learned that the presence of trees on their fields provides natural nitrogen to fertilise the crop while the shade keeps them humid. During the rainy season, the soil does not get washed away as the tree roots stabilise it.

Bashir's wife Someya is also fond of the trees, but for a different reason. "They gave us women the seeds and the pots and we grew seedlings." UNHCR then bought the seedlings from the nursery project, thus giving the local women some income. That was the first time Someya was earning money of her own.

With her hands, she shows how big the seedlings were when she sold them. Then she points to the top of the tree that is well above her head now.

The former Mafaza refugee camp blends well into the texture of the town. It looks more like another neighbourhood than a separate structure. The clinic that was used by both refugees and Sudanese now serves the local population.

When the camp was built, the refugees had clean potable running water in their settlement. The people of Mafaza were allowed to use those water points as well, which was a tremendous improvement. Bashir still remembers how donkey carts used to bring the water from remote and dirty water holes when he was a child.

Another asset for Mafaza is the former camp school. They started using it recently, when the local school building collapsed. Though old, the refugee school is in better shape and the local children enjoy their classes.

While the world is focusing on the recent refugee crisis in western Sudan's Darfur region, the eastern part of the country offers a happy ending to the longstanding refugee situation. Out of the original 1 million, only some 90,000 Eritreans are left in the remaining refugee camps in the region. The others have returned home or will be resettled to third countries. Some have settled down locally. This is why UNHCR has already closed a number of camps; others will follow.

The infrastructure that once served up to one million refugees is now ready to be handed over to the local communities. UNHCR developed a custom-made rehabilitation programme for the refugee-impacted areas and communities, in cooperation with 15 partners including government, non-governmental organisations and UN agencies. SOLSES (Sustainable Options for Livelihood Security in Eastern Sudan) comprises 17 projects covering health, education, water and sanitation services, infrastructure as well as the restoration of affected landscapes.

The projects were designed to help the local population improve their livelihood and to reverse the negative impact that the presence of so many refugees had on the environment and the economy of the two Sudanese states of Gedaref and Kassala. UNHCR feels that before it reduces the refugee programme even more, it owes the population some sort of compensation for their hospitality. The costs are small in comparison to the burden the refugees imposed. A total of $11.5 million will be invested in the SOLSES programme for a period of three years.

Under SOLSES, hospitals will be rehabilitated and equipped. After so many years, buildings and water pipes are in need of repair. Schools need furniture and books. And above all, training programmes will empower the local population to make better use of the natural resources in the region.

Culturally, there was never a rift between the Eritrean refugees and their local hosts. Both belong to the Beni Amer tribe and share the same language and faith. But the sheer number of people put considerable strain on the environment.

Someya remembers the long distances she had to walk in search of firewood when she was a girl. Her daughter is now spared that effort. In recent years, reforestation programmes have brought wood closer to town again.

At home, Someya busies herself with dinner preparations. "UNHCR showed us how to build these new stoves," says Bashir. "It was not difficult. I brought stones and put them in a circle together with mud. So the fire is protected from the wind. Now we need less fuel and we do not need to cut down our new trees, Alhamdulillah (thank God)."

By Melita H. Sunjic in Sudan