The finely featured Somali nomads linger in clusters under the baking sun. Originally from the drought-ridden wasteland of Ethiopia, they have just been trucked in from an overcrowded frontier transit camp to this destitute sprawl of refugee settlements pitched on both sides of the withering Juba River.
All the other rivers in the region have long since turned into parched, sandy fissures lacing their way across the barren scrubland.
Standing amid their rudimentary belongings --blackened cooking pots, camel hides, straw matting, and tent poles -- the newcomers have not yet had time to construct their "dasays" or traditional domed nomadic huts.
They have not eaten for days.
Although the war between Ethiopia and the Mogadishu-backed Western Somali Liberation Front now appears to have subsided into scattered clashes, refugee influxes are dramatically on the increase. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an average of 4,000 refugees now are crossing the border from Ethiopia into Somalia every day, compared with 2,000 a day last October. Some 112,000 refugees arrived in January alone.
Contrary to previously inflated government statistics, the UNHCR estimates that 1.3 million refugees are living in Somalia.
While Somali government officials like to stress Ethiopian persecution as the principal reason behind the flight of ethnic Somali nomads and Oromo farmers from the Ogaden, Sidamo, and Bale regions, refugee testimony indicates that they are fleeing a mixture of aggravated drought conditions, starvation, military harassment, and tribal conflict.
An undetermined number of camp inmates also are believed to be the families of Somali guerrillas, regular government troops, or local nomads seeking food, water, and medical care.
One of the new arrivals, Fatima Muhammad Abdi, a widowed mother of six, explains that they were forced to flee because of armed raids by Boranas, a non-Somali tribe living in southeastern Ethiopia.
"They stole our animals and killed our men," she said, clutching a young child. "We were dying of hunger so we came here." Many refugees claim that the Boranas are being encouraged by the Ethiopians to carry out attacks.
Ethiopian officials recently interviewed on the other side of the frontier told this reporter that there is a limited degree of traditional tribal conflict resulting in cattle or camel rustling, but no military persecution. The Boranas are not armed by the Addis Ababa regime or incited to raid ethnic Somalis, the officials said.
Worsening drought conditions on both sides of the border are critically affecting local nomads as well as refugees. On the dustry road leading through the bleached semiarid savannah from Mogadishu to Lugh, this correspondent's vehicle was hailed on numerous occasions by nomads seeking a few mouthfuls of water.
Recently, the Somali government declared a state of emergency.United Nations officials predict that vital water supplies will run out this month in many areas unless new and deeper wells can be drilled. Already, a high proportion of Somalia's 33 camps must rely on water trucks for supplies. Refugees are receiving barely enough water to survive, let alone for personal hygiene.
"The health of refugees is being seriously impacted by poor water quality or the lack of it," said Mike McGovern, a UNHCR water engineer. "If the drought continues, many sick, elderly, and children will certainly perish."
Although two water drills have been brought into the country, work has been seriously delayed for a variety of reasons. At one point, the drills were stuck in the port of Mogadishu for several days because there was not enough gas for vehicles to transport them into the calamity-stricken areas. Somalia, which used to receive its principal fuel supplies from Iraq, is suffering from an acute fuel shortage because of the Gulf war.
Somali relief operations face a number of other severe difficulties. Transit camps, which offer only meager food and water facilities, are overflowing with new arrivals. Normally, refugees are expected to remain several days at the most in the transit camps before being transported to permanent settlements further inland. Refugees now must wait up to two months before being moved.
Since late last year, the UNHCR also has been forced to cope with drastic abuse of refugees, ranging from military recruitment by the Somali armed forces and guerrilla groups in the camps to the wholesale pilfering of food supplies.
UNHCR protests appear to have forced the government to halt military recruitment of refugees, which is not allowed under the UN Charter, although it still continues on a more limited scale by liberation groups.
Food thefts, however, still occur at an alarmingly high rate despite attempts to monitor loading, transportation, and distribution of supplies. Diplomatic and relief sources estimate that between 30 and 60 percent of stocks are looted before they can even reach the hands of the refugees. Unofficially, the UNHCR admits that roughly 40 percent of supplies are being pilfered.
Monitoring efforts in Mogadishu appear to have brought food thefts in the dockyards under control. One American relief official estimates that between 5 and 10 percent disappears on the long truck journeys from the port to the camps. The great bulk, however, is looted from the camp warehouses just prior to distribution.
A European doctor told this reporter that private trucks drive up literally every night to help themselves to donated wheat, pulses, or powdered milk supplies. Night watchmen allwo the practice, he said.
"We can do little but report food thefts or misuse of relief equipment, such as trucks," said one aid official. "It is up to the government to use its muscle and clamp down."
Relief sources believe that military government and private racketeers are involved. The food is apparently either sold locally or in Kenya. Much of it makes its way to the liberation forces inside Ethiopia.
"It would not be so bad if the food were recirculated within the country itself," noted one UNHCR official. "What is intolerable is that middlemen are making profits with internationally donated supplies or that it is going elsewhere."
Although relief organizations accept a certain amount of pilfering as a fact of life, large-scale theft, they feel, cannot be tolerated. The government acknowledges that some food is being stolen, but questions the estimates put forward by some aid officials.
"If this is the case," said Jamar Muhammad Ghalib, minister for local government and rural development, "we will certainly launch an investigation and do what we can to stop it."
Diplomats, who regard Mr. Ghalib as one of Somalia's most scrupulously honest government officials, fear that this will prove no easy task. Some members of the administration are thought to be involved in the thefts.
Relief officials realize that complete control is virtually impossible, but suggest that more professional expatriates be brought in to oversee supply movements. The National Refugee Commission urges the use of better-trained administrators to deal more effectively with such problems.
Tragically, relief operations in Somalia seem to move from crisis to crisis. Some critics charge that the UNHCR is not pressuring the government enough to correct misappropriations. An overall effective coordination of relief activities is also lacking.
"Basically," said one source, "no one really has their act together here. A lot of time, effort, and material is being unnecessarily wasted."
Somalia's problem is not just refugees. It is drought, famine, economic bankruptcy, political opposition, and war. Prospects for an end to the Ogaden conflict are bleak, and the refugees seem condemned to spending many more years in the camps.
In certain ways, the refugees are better off than the local inhabitants. The World Food Program estimates that the refugees, who are totally dependent on international goodwill, will require 280,000 tons of food for 1981. Roughly half has already been pledged by donor countries, although distribution operations will require three times as many trucks as at present to ensure that it will reach the refugees.
Somalia itself, however, is expected to suffer from a food shortfall of more than 400,000 tons this year. In theory, such requirements are logistically almost impossible to fulfill as it would mean something like 400 more shiploads of food being brought in.
"We may have crises now," said one Western aid official, "but we're going to have a disaster sooner than we think. And I don't know how we're going to deal with it."