`I was a building contractor. I had a lot of houses and trucks. Now, in this camp, my children are nearly naked. I'm not used to it.'' As Somalian Mohamed Abdillahi Youssef - one of the world's more than 14 million refugees - tells his story, a dozen pairs of eyes peer in from under the burlap and plastic walls of his hut.
His green-and-white scarf, a lingering touch of affluence, hangs down to frayed, gray-and- white-striped slacks. His plight illustrates the disruption in the lives of most refugees, and the challenges in helping them, especially in desolate, desert areas such as this one, miles from food and water. Water to the Somali camps, for example, is trucked in from wells 50 miles away.
Though Africa's approximately 4 million refugees constitute less than a third of the world's total, they absorb almost half the budget of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR).
``Everything has to be brought in, from food to tents, to cooking utensils,'' says Meryem Amar, a UNHCR spokesperson in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. ``Sometimes we have to build roads,'' she says.
The number of African refugees continues to climb, with civil wars continuing in Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Mozambique, and Angola. And a border dispute between Senegal and Mauritania has forced the exodus of thousands from both countries.
As the escape door for people fleeing violence in both Sudan and Somalia, Ethiopia - among Africa's poorest nations - has become the unintended host to more refugees than any other African country, about 800,000, according to the UNHCR. Several hundred people continue to arrive daily from both countries, says a UNHCR official.
Last summer, several thousand Somali civilians trekked in daily as Somali troops fought fiercely against Somali rebels, especially in the city of Hargessa, in northern Somalia, Mr. Abdillahi's home.
As Abdillahi continues his story, the curious crowd outside the hut swells to scores. But beyond the circle, camp life rolls slowly on in a routine mixed with desperation and fear, but also enterprise and hope.
While some camp residents claim they are nearly starving for lack of food, others, according to camp officials and some refugees, claim more than their share of rations by using multiple ration cards obtained by registering several times under assumed names.
``Some refugees happen to have five, six, 10 ration cards,'' says Albert-Alain Peters, UNHCR representative to Ethiopia. ``Others, the most vulnerable ones, have one, maybe two.''
In an interview at a food distribution site, a Somali refugee says fear of not getting enough food drives some refugees to sign up for more than one ration card.
``The problem of rations is the frequency of distribution is not right,'' says the refugee. ``It always comes late. Sometimes we don't get a ration for one month.''
The food distribution witnessed by this correspondent was the first in more than a month, according to Ethiopian and UNHCR officials. Items such as wheat flour and cooking oil, do not always arrive in the camps at the same time from various international donors. Rather than hand out part of the ration, everything is held until the package is complete, a UNHCR official said.
There are also not enough trucks to keep up with timely food distribution, says another UNHCR official.
One result: ``Those people with one ration card may starve,'' says an Ethiopian official at the camp. ``They're getting about one third of what they should get.''
Willard Pearson, Jr., is the representative to Ethiopia of the US Agency for International Development, a major food donor to the camps. He says it appears some food is going to people in ``inappropriate ways,'' while ``some people are simply not getting enough.'' He points out that there was a high level of malnutrition among children in the camps.
Ashenafi Mamo, an Ethiopian Ministry of Health doctor working in the camps, says malnutition among children under five was about 25 percent last March. Since then, supplemental feeding for children under five and pregnant women and mothers of nursing babies has brought the level down to about 15 percent, he says.
A one-day re-registration of all the refugees was planned for Aug. 15 to try to solve the problem of ration cheaters. It might also have shed new light on one of the biggest mysteries of the Somali camps: How many refugees there actually are.
Going by Ethiopian figures, based on registration of everyone showing up and claiming to be a refugee, there are about 600,000 refugees in or around the camps. But a ``guess'' last summer by the UN put the number of refugees at just over half that, so only enough food for about 350,000 is being delivered, Mr. Peters says.
Peters also says the Ethiopian government has arrested a number of Ethiopian food-truck drivers and other Ethiopians on charges of stealing food.
Another part of the food problems is that ethnic Somalis living on both sides of the Ethiopia-Somalia border look similar and speak the same language, making it difficult for registration officials to know who is a refugee.
While for many, camp life means endless idle days of discouragement, others have taken paying jobs with international relief organizations operating in the camp.
A small number of young refugees have found places in the handful of camp schools. One small boy said sadly that he had found all the classes full. Another boy, who managed to get in, says he hopes someday to ``be a university graduate and earn a lot of money.'' But when asked what he wanted to do, all he could think of was: ``Work in a refugee camp.''
Some Somali refugees have opened small retail shops in a thriving market area that has sprung up near the main camp. Many of the Somalis arrived here with at least some goods and money from their homes.
But even the destitute sell some rationed food to obtain other kinds of food lacking in their diet here.
One small store offers soap, spaghetti, cigarettes, pens, powdered soft drinks, and a radio repair service. Dust blows up in periodic gusts across the narrow dirt road through the market stalls. Buses, loaded with Somalis travelling from one camp or village to another, compete for space with international relief vehicles, and swarms of people on foot.
The UNHCR has come under some criticism by private, international relief organizations and some Western government relief officials for responding too slowly to the sudden influxes of refugees into Ethiopia.
Many people died in the Sudanese refugee camps shortly after their arrival last year.
Peters points out that the Sudanese and Somali influxes peaked at the same time - the middle of last year.
He and other UNHCR officials contend there was no way they could set up shelter and feeding programs any faster. They say day-to-day construction and operation of the camps falls under the control of the Ethiopian government, which last year had its hands full rushing food and other relief to several million people in northern Ethiopia, where a famine was prevented with major international assistance.