Somolia Bixin camp stretches for five miles in a baking wilderness

FROM afar, the oasis, its thick date-palm groves and fruit orchards shimmering in the heat, looks beguilingly like a scene from the movie ``Lawrence of Arabia.'' Cutting through the oasis is a rutted track of stones and sand, the ancient route to Hargeisa, used only by nomads and the occasional vehicle. On the other side it disappears into the bone-dry plateau wilderness.

As you approach the oasis mud and stone dwellings become visible among the trees. Then you see the riverbed where young boys herd camels and goats to graze along its grass-stubbled edges. In the pools away from the flow of the water are colorful ``annual fish.'' But once these remnants dry, the fish will perish. 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 -- a random spread of the refugees' dome-shaped akuls (huts). For five miles they stretch across a baking desert basin.

Since last September, the Somali government has turned this spot -- Bixin -- into a large-scale holding center to accommodate some 36,000 Ethiopian refugees. For such a large population of refugees, however, the attractiveness of Bixin's palm groves and fruit orchards can do little to ease the bleak and inhospitable terrain. The refugees, used to the comparative cool of their Ogaden highland homes in Ethiopia, complain bitterly of the heat -- as high as 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

``Why have they put us here?'' asked one clan leader, Khadar Abdi Hussein. ``We cannot take this heat.''

In official relief jargon, Bixin is a designated ``holding center.'' Theoretically, it's a temporary home for refugees until more permanent living quarters can be arranged. But the refugees could be here for a long time. The few educated ones among them, mainly high school pupils, come forward pleading, ``What about our education?'' Said one, ``We have had promises, promises, but nothing is being done. Please don't forget us.''

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

The donors have condemned the site as unsuitable and are pushing to have the refugees settled elsewhere. Criticizing allegedly inflated government figures about the total number of refugees in Somalia, some argue that enough room can be found among already existing camps.

Furthermore, it is generally felt to be a deliberate government policy to place refugees in areas where they have no chance of farming or settling down, thus insuring continued aid. ``Politically, the Somalis need a refugee problem,'' said one European source. ``They 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.''

The government is reluctant to have yet more refugees placed in camps around their already over-populated towns or near the border areas. They also claim that more feasible sites are simply not available.

Compared to other camps Bixin's undecided status has left it with only the most basic facilities. Water supplies are limited, there are no schools (apart from several Koranic centers), or income-generating programs. Fuel, as in so many refugee areas throughout the Horn of Africa or Sudan, poses a severe problem. The surrounding countryside has already been picked clean of firewood for several miles around with no efforts at reforestation.

According to Dr. Muhammad Abdi Ismail, the camp's only physician, up to 200 refugees, mostly 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.

The waters flowing from Bixin's riverbed constitute one of the camp's greatest health hazards. Naked children splash gaily in the pools, women wash clothes, and men congregate to talk and bathe.

But with so many people using such little water, the stream has become polluted. ``What you've got here is a major health hazard,'' said one observer who requested anonymity.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has ensured that dwellings are spaced farther apart and is in the process of constructing dispersed latrines to reduce contamination.

Nevertheless, until the people of Bixin are either transferred (or Bixin is declared a permanent site with adequate facilities), they seem condemned to a precarious existence.

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