The Birth of a City: Putting Down Roots in a Refugee Camp

Published on Spiegel Online International, by Dialika Krahe in Kenya, September 8, 2011.

… Page 2: Tons of Aid, and Famine:

Every day, Ochalla’s colleagues with the World Food Program drive their trucks to the warehouses. Each truck is loaded with 28 tons of relief supplies, including corn meal from the United States and porridge from Turkey. The logistics experts’ goal is to maintain a three-month inventory of food, but at the moment there is only enough food available for two months. 

Once every 15 days, each camp resident can expect to receive 3.36 kilograms (7.4 lbs.) of wheat flour, 3.36 kilos of cornmeal, 0.96 kilos of lentils, 0.48 liters (16 oz.) of vegetable oil, 0.72 kilos of porridge and 80 grams of salt. It isn’t much, but it’s enough to stay alive.

The aid arrives by air and sea from all over the world. The refugees arrive at the border, some in shared taxis, but most on foot, after enduring a trek through the harsh Somali landscape. It is as if two unending tides were advancing toward one another, the refugees and the aid. The only question is: Which tide will ebb first?

It is 8 a.m. An aid worker carrying a megaphone walks among the refugee groups and tries to organize them by family size. Once Nuriya and her children have been classified as “Family Size 5,” they are allowed through the gates. The three-year-old is crying. No one says a word.

Before Nuriya can become a camp resident, and before she and her girls are given anything to eat, they are required to pass through various stations. At one station, she dips her finger into black dye for identification purposes. At another station, an aid worker asks her whether she was raped or attacked by wild animals. Nuriya shakes her head. “I saw four children die,” she says. “We buried them by the side of the road.”

Now the sun is beating down on the square, and the waiting refugees cower under the UNHCR tents. The refugee agency acts as the lead organization in Dadaab. Its workers attempt to coordinate the contributions and efforts of 25 other aid organizations, so that they don’t all do the same thing, money isn’t wasted and things are done fairly. If someone were to randomly start distributing rice in the camp, it could trigger a riot.

In the reception area, the German Agency for International Cooperation conducts the medical examinations, CARE manages food distribution and the International Organization for Migration brings refugees from the border to the camp. Yet another group of rickety buses has just arrived at the gate.

Nuriya sits on a bench and watches as the doors open and more refugees, a group that has just been collected at the border, emerge from the buses. Children are handed down across the steps. One boy isn’t wearing shoes or underpants. The women carry cloth bundles.

Ochalla, the unofficial camp mayor, stands at the main gate, less than 10 meters away from Nuriya, and observes the same scene, but with different eyes. He is leading a delegation from Japan on a tour of the camp, including the reception area and the new city for refugees. The Japanese take pictures. Ochalla says: “We are in trouble. We thought the numbers were going down, but more and more people have been coming in the last few days.” The aid workers expect 1,500 new arrivals on this particular day.

For Nuriya, this means that perhaps hardly any Somalis will be living in Somalia soon, and that she may never be able to return to her country. For Ochalla, it means that even more refugees will become residents of his refugee city, and that he will have to work more quickly.

Waiting for Food: … //

… A Vision of a Functioning Piece of Africa:

When German Minister Niebel visited Dadaab, he was first shown the squalor and then the new city. Ochalla needs money, and he believes that this approach will enable him to raise most of it. “We always show both sides,” he says, “first the misery, then the successes.”

Ochalla has a budget of $24 million to build his refugee city. He has already spent $16 million of the money. According to UN figures, $2.5 billion are needed to save the people in the entire Horn of Africa. So far less that half of the money has been provided. Critics claim that this is primarily because the rich donor countries prefer to pump their billions into rescuing banks, so nothing is left over for famine relief. They also say the African countries are not doing enough to address the problems.

There was a donor conference in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa two weeks ago. The African Union sought to use the opportunity to prove the opposite — that African governments were, in fact, helping. Fifty-four African countries pledged $46 million for famine relief in the region, with Algeria and Egypt leading the pack. Oil-rich Nigeria will donate only $1 million, while South Africa pledged the paltry sum of $1.3 million.

Belated and insufficient as it may be, the charity brings some hope. Ochalla has his work cut out for him. He’ll need to present the same examples — first misery, then success — to celebrities, journalists and cabinet ministers. When he met with German Development Minister Niebel, he talked about the 1,000 people he and his staff resettle on a single day. They toured the unpaved roads of Ifo Extension, the site of Ochalla’s future refugee city. He explained to the minister how, with international assistance, he intends to expand this tiny segment of African earth into a functioning piece of Africa.

He envisions a city where water flows from wells, where tents have turned into stone houses, where the dusty square has become a market, where the children have turned into pupils and waiting has turned into a life. The Bill Gates Foundation envisions a more nutritious type of sweet potato, which could potentially feed millions. Bob Geldof has established a fund that hopes to invest in African companies and jump-start the economy. Jeffrey Sachs, with his UN program, hopes to cut the number of people suffering from hunger in half.

For now, Nuriya Ali just wants a tent.

She is standing in an open area filled with children, puddles of sewage and garbage. “We had to sleep outside the first night,” she says. “It was cold, and the children were coughing.” But, she adds, it was a happy night.

A female friend from her village, who has been in the camp for five days, found Nuriya and brought her to where she is living in an area known as the Outskirts, the camp’s ghetto. Nuriya stowed away her high-energy biscuits, oil and cooking utensils in an old woman’s tent. “I cooked,” she says. “I made tea and flatbread.” Her children were able to eat their fill for the first time in weeks. Afterwards, she fetched some water and poured into a large bowl. Then she placed her children into the bowl, one at a time, and bathed them. (full 3 pages text). (Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan).

Link: Power Struggle at the Heart of the Theocratic Regime, on CoDIR, by Jane Green, August 21, 2011.

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