Desert war refugees inundate Somalia

"Our village was constantly bombed by planes," Noora Hassan, who recently fled from Ethiopia with her four children, told this reporter. "Then came the soldiers, most of them black but some with white faces, and made us leave. With their tanks, they destroyed our homes."

Like most refugee women, Noora, who shares a "toucoule" or rough hut in a camp near Hargeisa with another family, claims that her husband is fighting with the rebels back in the Ogaden Desert area of Ethiopia.

(Somalia and Ethiopia long have contended for the Ogaden, most of which is now in Ethiopian hands. But Somali guerrillas remain active in the area.)

"Fighting with the liberation front," however, often means that the husband either still is tending the family goats and camels in the fighting zones or that he has been killed.

What is clear is that Somalia, with a population of about 3.8 million people, has been deluged with refugees. Government officials in Mogadiscio claim that this nation, considered among the world's 25 poorest, now must play reluctant host to more than 2 million refugees.

"No other single country on earth has as many refugees as we do," announced Information Minister Dr. Muhammad Adan Shekh. If government figures are to be believed, this would mean that at least one out of every three human beings living on Somali soil today is a refugee.

Some international relief coordinators working in Somalia consider such estimates slightly exaggerated. "It's probably more like 1 1/2 million," noted one European UN official.

But either way, the burgeoning refugee population remains just as burdensome. With few natural resources of its own other than livestock and banana exports, Somalia simply cannot afford such a deluge of refugees.

Some 725,000 registered refugees now are living in 26 camps mainly grouped together in th hot inland Gedo, Hiran, and northwest regions of Somalia. Just over 90 percent are women and children.

According to Muhammad Ghalib, minister of local government and rural development, "An extra two refugees live at large in the country for every one in camp." Relief officials maintain that almost every Somali family has taken in refugees and cares for them at their own expense.

Some diplomats here refer to the refugee plight of this impoverished, semi-desert nation, whose biggest problem until recently was its traditional lack of water, as being a severe case of "overswamping."

The analogy is by no means inappropriate. Like the rate, but heavy torrents of rain that occasionally hit this normally arid savanna landscape, causing rivers to burst their banks, so has the sudden influx of refugees wreaked havoc with Somalia's fragile economic and social infrastructure.

Earlier this year, Poul Hartling, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), solemnly warned that the Somali situation had become the "worst refugee problem in the world."

Most of the refugees are ethnic Somalis from the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, where insurgents are fighting a protracted guerilla war for self-determination against the Soviet and Cuban-backed Ethiopian regime of Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam in Addis Ababa.

Almost all those originating from the Ogaden, which is referred to as West Somalia by both the insurgents and the Mogadiscio government, claim to have fled because of Ethiopian attacks supported by Cuban combat troops.

In addition to the ethnic Somalis, roughly 30 percent of the refugee population in the south consists of Oromos from the Bale, Sidamo, and Arussi areas of Ethiopia. they, too, are fighting a liberation war against the Mengistu regime. Many claim they are being forced out of their homeland because the Ethiopians want to bring in more compatible and loyal subjects from the overcrowded north.

The situation has been aggravated further by acute drought conditions in Ethiopia that have caused serious food shortages. Furethermore, thousands of nomads have crossed the border to seek better grazing lands for their livestock.

With the influx of refugees earlier this year running at nearly 2,000 a day, the UNHCR appealed March 4 for more than $120 million worth of immediate cash or kind relief to help care for a projected 750,000 camp refugees throughout 1980.

TWo-thirds of this aid is earmarked for procuring roughly 160,000 metric tons of food. The remaining third is budgeted for general assistance such as shelter , clothing, water facilities, medicines, transport, and education.

In addition, the UN interagency mission that carried out relief assessments last December also proposed $20.5 million worth of assistance to strengthen Somali administrative services, as well as $135.8 million in the form of an accelerated development program to help the government carry the burden of refugees among its population.

At this writing, the World Food Program, which is responsible for the distribution of food supplies, has received only 128,000 tons worth of pledges for immediate relief. United States contributions account for 51 percent of the total required.

And as far as nonfood items are concerned, donor countries have given $23 million of the $40.7 million needed.

But the logistic difficulties in transporting food and other supplies from the Somali ports of Berbera and Mogadiscio to the camps are enormous. Feeding the nearly 100,000 families in the camps requires 400 tons of food per day.

Theoretically, the refugees should receive a daily basic "food basket" consisting of 1 pound 4 ounces worth of maize, sorghum, rice, flour, oil, sugar, milk, and meat. In practical terms, however, this is not the case. More often than not, the refugees must live on a single basic food item for days on end because nothing else is available.

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