Turning the Refugee Tide


"We don't know where he comes from or who his family is, but maybe when he's ready he'll tell us," said 87-year-old Benjamin Kagarazfa, the "mayor" in a small section of a Mozambican refugee camp in Zimbabwe. He rubbed the boy's head as if he was soothing a frightened little goat. "His name is Samieri. He came by himself last week but one, on a Monday."

Kagarazfa, like Samieri, lives in the Nyangombe Refugee Camp. The camp is in an arid wasteland all by itself, on the banks of the Nyangombe River, which flows freely only a few months each year.

Samieri's face looked blank as a stone as he tagged along with a tour of an agricultural project designed to teach camp children about the natural environment in a Mozambique they've never seen. He showed no emotion at seeing piglets frolicking around the mother sow. He stood impassively before a goat pen where a newborn kid wobbled in play. He finally allowed a tiny grin to appear when posing for a photo next to his "foster" mother, but it quickly faded. Samieri is one of thousands of unaccompanied children in the camps, a drop in the 1992 flood of Mozambicans who sought refuge in neighboring countries and still await repatriation.

A new type of refugee is emerging in this exodus from Mozambique. Earlier asylum seekers fled from the violence of the Mozambican civil war, which left houses burned, food stolen, and people mutilated, kidnapped, or dead. Then, drought forced tens of thousands more to flee - ironically, just when peace seems nearer than ever before because of an October agreement to end the fighting. Today the refugees are in limbo because organized repatriation remains stalled, as are other provisions of the treaty.

The accord, signed in Rome by Mozambican president Jaoquim Chissano and rebel leader Afonso Dhlakama, ended 17 years of war and paved the way for national reconciliation. culminating two years of talks, the agreement calls on all government troops and guerrillas of the Mozambique National Resistance, known by its Portuguese acronym of RENAMO, to gather in UN-monitored assembly points and turn in their guns. It also calls for the formation of a new army out of the two forces and for multi-party elections.

The original timetable for implementation, however, quickly became unrealistic. A new schedule approved in January has also proved impossible to meet because few of the promised 8,000 UN peacekeepers have arrived in the country. Troops from both armies remain armed and roam unsupervised.

Even as champagne glasses clinked in Italy at the signing of the peace pact, in southern Africa the trample of refugees grew louder by the day. The influx into Zimbabwe swelled the number of refugees in its camps to an official population of more than 150,000. Zambia has 25,000, while South Africa, with 350,000 refugees, also reported large influxes. In Malawi, the refugee count topped 1.3 million. Since them, about 300,000 refugees have spontaneously returned home on their own, but the majority remain outside Mozambique, fearing the threat of renewed war. Lack of food also keeps refuges away. Inside the country, an estimated 2.3 million people already need food assistane because of displacement by war and the 1992 drought.

In Zimbabwe's camps, the drought-induced flow of refugees created a sense of emergency. In Nyangombe Refugee Camp, for example, the population jumped by 4,000 people up to 22,085 in less than three weeks. (Its planned capacity is 20,000.) Said camp administrator Misheck Zengeya, "The guns may be silent, but the drought will be in Mozambique for an indefinite period.


Kagarazfa, little Samieri, and Samieri's foster mother make a striking contrast. The old man was visiting his sister, who is married to a Zimbabwean, when Simbabwe soldiers picked him up and brought him to the camp in 1984. Many refugees fleeing violence in Mozambique arrived in the early 1980s to settle in Zimbabwe, where they worked as laborers on commercial farms, cultivated communal land given to them by local headmen, or lived in settlements unassisted by authorities. Their numbers were then small enough so that Zibabwe residents could host the Mozambicans.

By 1984, Zimbabwe's government had been strongly criticized for not helping refugees. At the same time, cross-border raids by South Africa-backed RENAMO deepened security concerns. Hundreds of civilians were killed on the Zimbabwe side of the border. Four camps were established and refugees rounded up, among them Kagarazfa. (An estimated 100,000 Mozambicans settled outside the camps, although many are moving to the camps as the drought forced Zimbabwean farmers to lay off laborers.)

The steady stream of refugees surged in 1987 when RENAMO, with South African assistance, stepped up its attacks. A fifth camp opened in 1988 to accommodate the tens of thousands fleeing to Zimbabwe, among them Samieri's foster mother. Many recounted tales of RENAMO atrocities. A U.S. State Department consultant accused RENAMO of carrying out "the worst holocaust" since World War II.

Samieri is among the third generation of refugees, most of whom are drought victims. In late 1992, a daily average of 500 people crossed into Zimbabwe in search of food, shelter, and peace. These are people who eked out an existence amid brutal banditry as rebels took what little food existed from the villages under RENAMO control. Then drought accomplished what 17 years of war could not: the crops, gardens, and even the wild nuts and berries vanished in many remote refugee areas. The new arrivals were emaciated, some near death.

The refugees told of hundreds left behind, too malnourished to make the long walk. In Mozambique's northern regions of Luipo and Alua, for example, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimates that at least 15 percent of the population died. "After all the years of conflict, drought has pushed another 70,000 people to leave Mozambique," said Henry Fournier, the head of the ICRC mission in southern Africa. "I don't believe they left for an economic reason, if they stayed all those years during the war. They leave now because it's a question of survival."

To get food to the remote areas being fast abandoned by refugees, the ICRC trucks began rolling across the Zimbabwe border into Mozambique in October 1992, following an agreement by RENAMO to allow humanitarian assistance through. The two main relief organizations, the ICRC and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), divided up Mozambique. The cross-border food distribution acted like preventive medicine, Fournier said. By providing food inside Mozambique, he hoped to reduce the number of refugees who would eventually need to be repatriated.

"I don't think it's going to finish up quickly," said Donald Kowet, the UNHCR representative in Zimbabwe. "If the famine is going to continue - and it will - we'll still be dealing with the influx. I had a long discussion with the Mozambican district administrator in Espungabera [a border town near the Zimbabwe border]. He has 400 people coming in every day, but he hasn't received any food for two weeks. He told me if he doesn't get food next week, most of the 100,000 population will go across to Zimbabwe. And that's just one area among hundreds." The UNHCR has appropriated one emergency budget after another to cope with the surge in refugees into Zimbabwe.

Relief aid workers in Tongogara Refugee Camp, the largest with a population of 45,000, claim the official refugee count inside the camp is an underestimate. Many Mozambicans fired from nearby commercial farms arrive at the camp in search of food, but avoid registering with the administration. These refugees have a revealing motive: Tongogara is officially closed to arrivals, so newcomers must go to Chambuta - a camp with a deadly reputation.


Chambuta Refugee Camp, which opened in 1988 to hold 20,000 people, four years later held over 25,000. The crush began in June 1992 when 3,000 people arrived. The next month brought 3,900 more; then 4,500 refugees came in August. Soon, 10 to 20 people a day were arriving at the camp. The past-capacity crowds "more than overstretched" medical facilities, to use the expression of the government's commissioner of refugees.

When the system at Chambuta eventually collapsed, a public-health nightmare began. The very young and old began dying from measles and dehydration, illnesses that wouldn't normally kill. "August was one of the worst months in the history of the camp," said Israel Chokuwenga, the camp administrator. "That month 206 people died due to disease and malnourishment. The refugees were too weak, too wasted, too dehydrated. They couldn't even walk to the clinic, so we literally had to go household to household shoving them into vehicles to bring them in. We had 10 to 15 deaths a day." Chokuwenga began stuttering when he talked about the deaths. In September, when only 174 fatalities were reported, he characterized the situation as greatly improved.

In response, the camp's staff set up a second satellite clinic closer to the huts to ensure quick diagnosis. Nearby, women cooked continuously during the day in a supplementary feeding program for children. "Milk bars" served high-protein drinks for all school-age students. Those with symptoms of measles and other contagious diseases were confined in a flapping canvas tent with a dirty plastic sheet for a floor.

The feeble condition of the newest arrivals contributed to the death toll, but there were other reasons. Sanitary conditions were poor in the overcrowded camp. Malnutrition was also a factor: long-awaited food relief couldn't match demand. Shortages of cornmeal and cooking oil hit the camp, and the increased population forced a reduction in food rations to below the minimum established by the UN World Food Program. At the same time, the drought dried up wells.

It was then that Chokuwenga made an unpopular decision: he abruptly banned the watering of all subsistence gardens and agricultural projects. "We had flourishing gardens, but I stopped all horticultural projects at the peak of the drought when we hit 20,000," he said. "The Baptists had a gardening project, and we stopped them. All the fruit trees died. Even tomatoes not ready to be harvested dried up before they could be eaten. I got a lot of anger from my colleagues, but I did if for our survival."

The lack of shelter during Zimbabwe's winter months of June, July, and August 1992 also worsened conditions. More than 2,300 households lacked adequate shelter because they hadn't received any wooden poles or thatch to build huts. For the, the family home depended upon their inventiveness with a sheet of plastic. While Zimbabweans hoped for rain, the refugees worried how to take shelter during a storm. Those in Nyangombe camp faced the same predicament.

Each new family should have received a small plot, dozens of wooden poles, up to five ridge beams, and grass thatching to construct a home. But there was no wood and thatch. Some refugees build walls after crafting sand-and-mud bricks using small tin cans, an innovation that ultimately proved futile when rains dissolved the structures. "What choice do we have?" one refugee asked as he tamped earth into a makeshift mold. "The war [in Mozambique] has affected everything, and even if we could go somewhere to find food, it was confiscated by the bandidos."


No professional working in the camps wants refugees to suffer from disease or hunger, but neither does anyone want the Mozambicans to become too settled. The underlying concept of a refugee camp is the opposite of community development. Refugee assistance is designed to help displaced persons survive until they can return home, so camp officials discourage such permanent improvements as land, better-than-adequate homes, extra water pumps, or orchards.

"You don't let refugees forget life can be tough, so eventually they will go back home," said Fournier. with schools, clinics, jobs, and even small businesses sprouting in host countries, he said, refugees may think twice about losing more than what they can gain back in their war-torn homeland.

For Mozambicans, home is the world's poorest country, where perhaps two-thirds of the national budget comes from foreign aid. Even with immediate peace, economists predict that the nation's standard of living won't reach even its 1981 level for at least a decade. Over 80 percent of the schools were destroyed or closed during the war. RENAMO destroyed almost 1,000 health clinics. The economy has ground to a halt.

Camp officials' worst fear is that refugees who go back to Mozambique could return to the camps if drought continues or civil strife flares up. This could mean an "Ethiopia-Somalia syndrome" - returning refugees register on both sides of a border, moving back and forth to survive on a network of well-intentioned assistance. Indeed, the UNHCR contends that some refugees in Malawi have been doing this for two years.

The human tide has slowed to a trickle but still has yet to turn; the UNHCR in Zimbabwe expects to repatriate only 10,000 Mozambicans this year. And when mass refugee repatriation begins, one of the most difficult task in reconstructing Mozambique will be rebuilding families. Most of the adult refugees are women, but children make up the largest group - 57 percent. War has left an estimated 250,000 orphaned. Thousands of others, such as little Samieri, are mysteries. Their faces stare down from photos on ICRC office walls in each refugee camp and in Mozambique. These are the unaccompanied children searching for relatives.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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