SOMALIA. Refugees face uncertain future at oasis

The old road to Hargeisa, a rutted track of stones and sand, runs through the oasis before disappearing into the dry wilderness of the high plateau beyond. In recent years, an asphalt highway from Berbera was built some 65 kilometers to the north. Now only nomads and an occasional vehicle ply the old road.

From afar, the Bixin oasis -- its thick date palm groves and fruit orchards shimmering in the heat -- looks like a scene from the movie ``Lawrence of Arabia.'' As you draw nearer, mud and stone dwellings emerge from among the trees; farmers can be seen irrigating their patchwork fields from nearby wells.

Then you see the riverbed. Young boys herd camels and goats to graze along its grass-stubbled edges. The river's water only flows in parts of the bed. Cut off from the flow, leftover pockets of water are cluttered with colorful ``annual'' fish. The fish will perish when the pockets dry out, but their eggs, in a remarkable display of desert survival, will lie dormant in the rock-hard mud until released by the next rains.

On the far side of the oasis lies a different world, where refugees live in a random spread of dome-shaped ``akuls'' (huts) that stretch for six kilometers across a baking desert basin.

Since September last year, the Somali government has turned Bixin into a large temporary camp for some 36,000 Ethiopian refugees. The majority of them are ethnic Somalis from the disputed Ogaden region, but there are also 15,000 Oromos, a largely agricultural people.

This is not the first time that Bixin has served as a haven for Ethiopians. Half a century ago, Emperor Haile Selassie I and his retinue found temporary asylum here after fleeing Fascist Italy's 1935 invasion of Abyssinia.

But for the huge number of today's refugees, Bixin's palm groves and fruit orchards can do little to ease the bleak, inhospitable terrain. The refugees, accustomed to the comparative cool of their highland homelands, complain of the heat, which was almost 40 degrees centigrade during this reporter's recent visit.

``Why have they put us here?'' asked one clan leader, Khadar Abdi Hussein. ``We cannot take this heat. It is not like the Ogaden.''

In official relief jargon, Bixin is called a ``holding center.'' It is supposed to be a temporary home for refugees until more permanent quarters can be provided. But the refugees could be here for a long time to come.

The uncertainty about their futures is the result of a longstanding disagreement between Western donor nations and the Somali government over numbers and refugee policy.

The donors resist moves to make Bixon into a more permanent camp. They have condemned the site as unsuitable and the living conditions as inhumane, and are pushing to have the refugees settled elsewhere. They also say there is no justification for the establishment of a camp at Bixin. Criticizing allegedly inflated government figures, some argue that room can be found for Bixin's refugees at existing camps.

Furthermore, Western officials feel that the Somali government deliberately places refugees in inhospitable areas where they will have no chance of farming or settling down. The government, says one European source, ``have been dragging their feet over local integration, which, in the end, may be the only solution if the refugees don't want to go back.''

Somali officials refute such accusations. They are reluctant to have yet more refugees placed in camps around their already oversaturated towns or near the border areas. They also claim that more feasible camp location sites are not available. ``Only in the coastal regions do we have possible sites, but then, we have to find ways of providing wa- ter,'' says regional refugee commissioner Botan Barre Samater in Hargeisa.

Meanwhile, Bixin's status as a ``holding center'' has left it with only the most basic facilities. Water supplies are limited, there are no schools (apart from several Koranic centers), and no income-generating programs. Fuel, as in so many refugee areas throughout the Horn of Africa or Sudan, poses a severe problem. The surrounding eight kilometers of countryside have already been picked clean of firewood; no efforts have been made to reforest them.

The health situation, too, is comparatively poor. While malnutrition among children has declined considerably since last December, the overall mortality rate remains high. The camp's only physician, Dr. Muhammad Abdi Ismail, says that up to 200 refugees, most of them children under five, are still dying every month -- over three times more than in other camps of similar size. ``One of the main reasons why people are in such poor shape is because they are not receiving the right amount of food,'' he said . ``It is obvious that their resistance is down.''

The waters still flowing in Bixin's parched riverbed constitute one of the camp's greatest health hazards. As a popular refuge from the heat, naked children splash gaily in the pools, women wash clothes, and men congregate to talk and bathe.

But with so many people using such a small amount of water, the stream has become polluted. Outside health specialists say fecal matter from the river precincts and around the camp's four water distribution points has begun to seep into the water table.

``What you've got here is a major health hazard,'' said one observer who requested anonymity.

``Anywhere you have direct fecal contamination near the water supply, you run the risk of cholera. One way of treating it is to pour chlorine down the wazoo -- down those wells. But you've got to do it now, and then hope the rains don't come.''

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