HUNDREDS of thousands of people are flooding into Kenya to escape ethnic fighting in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Sudan.
About 150,000 refugees are now in northern Kenya, according to Ulf Kristofersson, regional coordinator for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
With "no indications that civil strife and famine will cease" in Ethiopia and Somalia, Kenya could have from 300,000 to 500,000 refugees within a few months, he says.
So far, Mr. Kristofersson adds, a UN appeal for international assistance for the refugee has received little response.
Many peasants from the Horn of Africa have walked for days to get to this speck of a border town. Here they find other frightened refugees and dead cows and camels which are victims of a regional drought that UN officials say is likely to worsen in the weeks ahead.
At a time when demands for relief aid elsewhere are running high - southern Africa is facing its worst drought of the century, and the former Soviet republics are calling on the West for emergency food and other help - eastern Africa is in serious trouble.
In the weeks ahead lies the uncertainty of the long rains, the most important of the year in this region. Already, rainfall is below normal.
"I think it has the potential to be devastating again,' says United States Rep. Tony Hall (D) of Ohio, chairman of the House select committee on hunger, speaking of the situation in the region. "It's men that are keeping people away from their fields - civil war, the quest for power."
And in the US, where an election year has made foreign aid an unpopular topic, government relief officials are already "banging their heads trying to figure out how to come up with enough for southern Africa," a congressional staff member says.
An East African summit conference is scheduled in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa beginning tomorrow to address humanitarian relief issues.
But even if regional leaders take action and the world community comes up with the necessary funding, many war and drought victims currently are unreachable, according to the UN.
Most relief operations in Somalia, for example, have come to a halt due to fighting in recent months and the death of about two dozen relief workers in the past year. The International Committee of the Red Cross recently estimated that some 4.5 million Somalis countrywide now face the risk of famine.
Somalia is "the worst humanitarian disaster in the world today," says Andrew Natsios, assistant administrator for food and humanitarian assistance for the US Agency for International Development.
Since January 1991, when rebels overthrew Somali dictator Mohammed Siad Barre, factional fighting has torn the country apart. A March 26 joint report by Africa Watch and Physicians for Human Rights said that about 14,000 persons were killed just in the capital, Mogadishu, between Nov. 17 and Feb. 29.
Ethnic fighting also has flared up again in Northern Somalia.
Leaders of both factions fighting in Mogadishu, interim President Mohammed ali Mahdi and Gen. Mohammed Aideed, reportedly have agreed to stop shelling the port and airports so food relief can be brought to both sides. A UN team has been meeting with the warring leaders to set up plans to monitor a UN-brokered cease-fire signed last month.
Meanwhile, some 250,000 Somali refugees in southeastern Ethiopia, people who fled earlier fighting and famine, are now practically cut off from relief due to ethnic fighting there, according to the UNHCR.
Ethnic tensions have flared in various parts of Ethiopia, primarily the south, since rebels defeated Ethiopian dictator Men-gistu Haile Mariam in May 1991.
Local elections are scheduled soon, nationwide. Meanwhile, there is little central government authority in the countryside, US officials say.
In Sudan, says the congressional staff member, "somewhere around 500,000" Sudanese uprooted by previous drought and fighting have been forcibly removed from squatters camps around the capital, Khartoum, to desert camps some miles from the city.
UN official Thomas Ekvall, who coordinates relief to southern Sudan, says the Sudan Army is slowly "advancing on all fronts" on southern-based rebels.
Altogether, there are "some 200,000 in southern Sudan whom we cannot reach" with food aid due to fighting, Mr. Ekvall says. The government has banned all relief shipments to the south.
"They're starving: Some are sick, some wounded. Some have died,' Ekvall says.
In a switch from its routine of waiting until disaster strikes, the UNHCR already is making preparations for additional refugee camps in Kenya, says Kristofersson.