Refugee & Relief Alert No. 1/2000

from Refugees International
Published on 23 Jun 2000
Refugee & Relief Alert: Newsletter of Refugees International
Central Africa: Tragedy Continues in the Great Lakes

The Great Lakes Region of Central Africa is one of the most troubled on earth. The flight of more than one million people from Rwanda in the course of a few days in 199 was a watershed event for the international humanitarian assistance community. Refugees International led the campaign to persuade President Clinton to send a military rescue mission to help the refugees.

RI's role is even more important today as the fate of millions of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) in central Africa hardly causes a ripple in the world's news.

RI has had four extended missions to the Great Lakes in the past year. We have highlighted life-threatening problems of food security and violence against refugee women, and we have urged the international community to meet the needs of internally displaced people.

Food distribution to western Tanzania has been interrupted several times in the past year. Hungry refugees have protested, putting both refugees and humanitarian workers at risk. RI identified and helped resolve a bureaucratic glitch which prevented existing international food stocks from being used to feed refugees in western Tanzania. Senior Advocate Steve Smith is currently on a mission to assess the food situation in the camps in Burundi.

Violence against refugee women is unfortunately an often overlooked problem. RI has made the protection of refugee women one of its key advocacy objectives. In Tanzania, a study discovered that one in four refugee women reported being the victim of sexual violence. Women are most vulnerable when looking for firewood or working in their fields. Also, for cultural reasons, during the menstrual periods women are unable to tend their gardens or appear in public, placing the food security of the family at risk. RI learned of an innovative pilot program run by the International Rescue Committee ( IRC) to provide women with supplies to make their own sanitary materials. These sewing forums created a safe space to discuss gender issues. RI found a private donor to assist the project. It has been remarkably successful and a report on its progress is due in the next few weeks. IRC is now preparing a new proposal for donors in order to expand the program.

The number of IDPs in the re ion has grown alarmingly since 1998. Burundi has nearly 800,000 IDPs, forced into regroupment camps by their own government. North and South Kivu in eastern Congo have an estimated 500,000 IDPs, and the number is growing .

RI's most recent trip to eastern Congo highlighted the growing humanitarian crisis there. Our efforts through public bulletins and quiet advocacy have helped to raise awareness of these issues among US government policy makers. The high level of attention to the region by Nelson Mandela and UN Ambassador (and former RI Chair) Richard Holbrooke raises hopes that peace in the Great Lakes is possible.

Genocide, ethnic rivalries and politics have left these inhabitants of the formerly-termed "Switzerland of Africa" destitute and in terror of their neighbors. Even with peace, economic recovery after years of chaos will take a long time. Though healing will not be rapid, we are encouraged by the numerous examples of people working to ether to conquer fear, one day at a time.

Burma: No Safe Place

"We walked for nine days. We did not take anything with us, only our kids.... We were afraid that the SPDC [Burmese troops] would come and arrest everyone in our village. They arrest us because they think we have contact with Karenn soldiers [ethnic resistance fighters]. They take us to find them but we don't know where the Karenn soldiers are so they kick us and beat us. It happens in other villages too. We left when we heard the news of our friends' arrests and that our leader had died in jail."

- Interview with 25-year-old woman from Karenni State, May 22, 2000 at Ban Kwai Pai holding center, Thailand. Arrived from Burma on March 4, 2000.

Like this young woman, many refugees fleeing Karenni State in Burma described physical abuse and fear of arrest as reasons for fleeing to Thailand. Civilians are often the target of an intense campaign by the Burmese military to crush insurgent armies. Most recently whole villages have been forced to relocate to sites designated by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) army. Their villages and food supplies are then burned to discourage them from returning home. Many people fear they cannot survive these relocations so they hide in the jungle, where they are vulnerable to attack by soldiers, disease, and starvation.

Ban Kwai Pai holding center is a makeshift camp of 901 people located a mere kilometer from the Burmese border. Burmese army battalions are reportedly perched on a hillside overlooking the camp, well within shelling distance. When RI interviewed refugees in Ban Kwai Pai most of the 901 residents had been in camp for over two months, awaiting a decision by the Royal Thai Government as to whether they would be allowed to remain in Thailand. Under the current Thai admission criteria for displaced persons only those "fleeing conflict" are granted asylum in the country. Unfortunately, on May 23 all 901 individuals in the holding center were rejected admission. The decision is currently under review by the Ministry of Interior and the fate of this group is unclear.

Currently there are approximately 18,000 people in the three camps in the area of Mae Hong Son, in addition to those at Ban Kwai Pai. Another 100,000 people are in camps in other areas along the Thai-Burma border. Although Thailand alludes to plans to repatriate all Burmese along its border within three years, the refugees insist that they cannot go back. In the words of one Karenni representative, "If it were safe tomorrow, no one would even have to come and say, 'Okay go back now.' Our people would be gone."

Refugees International is advocating that the Royal Thai Government expand its admissions criteria to admit and protect those fleeing not only fighting but also the effects of fighting , which include forced relocation, forced labor, and forced portering. RI also urges UNHCR to continue to work closely with the Thai Ministry of Interior on behalf of the new arrivals in Mae Hong Son, and all refugees along the Thai-Burma border. The story of these refugees reminds us that the situation remains grim inside Burma and now is not the right time to send anyone back. The burden that Thailand faces in sheltering displaced people from Burma is one result of a deeper problem, whose real source is the Burmese military regime and which warrants increased attention from the entire international community.

Kosovo: The Opportunities and Challenges That Lie Ahead

Envision a gray-haired man, not ordinary, but distinguished. A high-ranking judge in Kosovo until 1990, this Albanian Kosovar opened a small milk pasteurization business in 1996. It was destroyed by Serb paramilitary forces last year. Fortunately, a rant from the British Government enabled him to buy new equipment and to expand to a capacity of 40,000 liters per day. His biggest challenge now is the establishment of a collection and distribution system.

On the other side of Kosovo, two widows are less fortunate. They survived the first post-war winter on humanitarian assistance provided in a small, metal container by UNHCR's winter shelter program. With the start of spring, however, they were desperate for information about the future. They had heard that NGOs were ending food and health programs in their neighborhood, but had not heard of what, if any, UN programs might replace them. Before the war, they survived on food raised on their own small plots of land and a bit of cash from a timber mill. Though their land has been cleared of land mines, they have no money to replace all the plants and animals. More than anything , they want to rebuild their house which was completely destroyed.

RI advocates met all three of these individuals during a field mission to Kosovo in March 2000. The experience of these individuals illustrates much of what is going well and what needs to be improved in Kosovo. A large humanitarian aid effort, concentrating on temporary shelter, food, health care and education, saw the region's population safely through the winter. Unfortunately, progress to rebuild Kosovo's society and economy has been disappointingly slow. It is difficult to establish effective civil governance systems and to provide services, including water, electricity and garbage collection. Unemployment is very high and wages low.

Serb, Bosnian, Roma and other non-Albanian Kosovars face a worsening situation. There is continuation of ethnic-based violence and the departure of non-Albanian Kosovars. Many remain trapped in their homes under static KFOR protection and are entirely dependent on humanitarian assistance provided by UNHCR. The RI mission determined that there is much to be done. It is particularly critical to build an appropriate base for the development of a healthy economy.

RI also learned that both Germany and Switzerland were planning to return as many as 80,000 Kosovars who had lived in those countries for several years or longer. RI made a public call for these countries to permit these Kosovars to remain through next winter. RI also made a call for increased international support to rule of law issues as donor nations have yet to send the full number of authorized international police, judges and prosecutors. In March, the international police force had only half the promised police on the round. The fledgling court system also needs sustained support in the form of material resources, court personnel and training.

Overall, RI remains concerned about the transition from emergency relief programs. RI found that public information programs needed to be increased drastically so that Kosovars would know what to expect next. In addition, the precarious situation of minorities, under close watch and steady assistance from UNHCR, also remains of particular concern. Kosovo will require continued assistance over the coming months and years.

Mozambique: Rebuilding after the Floods

It was 4 a.m. on February 12. Thousands of Mozambicans from the Limpopo River Valley remember that morning as though it was yesterday. Torrents of water, the result of a cyclone and weeks of rain, were released from dams in neighboring Zimbabwe and Zambia and overflowed Mozambican river basins. Families had as little as ten minutes to gather their belongings and hurry to higher ground, or, in many cases, the nearest rooftop.

Barragem, a town of 760 families nestled along the banks of the Limpopo, nearly disappeared under three meters of water. Many villagers fled to Manjangue, about one mile from the river. Some slept under trees for two months until international and local NGOs distributed tents for a makeshift camp. Since then, food distribution has come somewhat regularly, but there is only one hand pump to supply water to the Manjangue residents. Many people walk to a nearby lake for water, but jerry cans are also in short supply. Sanitary conditions are dangerous as there are no latrines.

As crops were destroyed less than one month before harvest, farmers have no income with which to buy seed. Some bean and corn seed has been distributed in flood-affected areas. However, local people say that, though floodwaters have receded, there has been an increase in pests and, due to the loss of livestock, an inadequate supply of fertilizer. Irrigation canals have also been destroyed.

The footbridge over the Limpopo to Barragem, once destroyed by Rhodesian Special Forces during Mozambique's civil war, was knocked out a second time by the flood. Seen as strategic targets during the war, bridges were often strewn with landmines. Since the flood, several mines have become visible near this crossing. Nevertheless, local people, attempting to reopen links with their former hometown, regularly cross via the twisted remains of the nearby railroad bridge.

On a visit to Mozambique in early May, Anne Costello, Field Advocate for RI, found the relief efforts drawing to a close and preparations being made for reconstruction. The international donor response to the Mozambican government's appeal at the Rome Conference in May was positive. However, funds must be forthcoming to meet the remaining needs.

Overall, Anne identified the need for a comprehensive post-flood relief assessment, conducted both on the round as well as from the air, to identify priorities and programs to be implemented in the reconstruction phase. Using this information the Mozambican government, UN agencies and NGOs can put to ether a coherent reconstruction plan.

Her findings included: the need for funds for seed distribution for the summer planting, rebuilding of roads and rails for transport of produce to market, provision of clean water and sanitary conditions for people returning home as well as those being resettled to new areas, and implementation of an emergency landmine clearing program. Additionally, coordination mechanisms are needed among all the international organizations, government ministries and NGOs to facilitate the transition, especially as Mozambicans leave the camp environment for their dispersed homes.

Clearly there is still a lot to be accomplished before Mozambique can return to normalcy. However, Mozambique's successful emergence from its sixteen-year civil war bodes very well for its flood recovery efforts.

In Search of Safety: Child Slaves Become Refugees in Eritrea

Yesterday's slave, today's refugee, and tomorrow's rebel soldier - Johannes Thon Mayuat, 20, is a product of the Horn of Africa's kaleidoscopic wars. Johannes was captured by Muraheleen raiders in southern Sudan and sold as a slave in Libya. He escaped, trekked west, and found fleeting safety in a refugee camp in Eritrea.

Refugees International's Africa Representative, Mary Anne Fitzgerald, came across Johannes when crossing the desert flats of western Eritrea days before fierce fighting broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea in May 2000. The refugee camp where Johannes was living along side some 70 other youngsters who had escaped their slave-masters was in the path of the invading Ethiopian troops, so once again he was on the run. Though there has been no news of Johannes since, it is thought that he has been taken by the Sudanese People's Liberation Army to fight in Sudan's civil war.

Johannes, an ethnic Dinka, does not remember his home near the oil fields of southern Sudan. He was captured by slavers when he was three. About twenty other children, all the children in his village, were captured in the same raid, he says.

Johannes is the victim of a thriving slave trade between Sudan, and its neighbors, Libya and Chad. His case is important and exceptional: he is the only person who has managed to escape from his Libyan masters and survive a five-day crossing of the desert without water to tell his tale to Refugees International. The enslavement of tens of thousands of ethnic Dinka women and children by Arab militias known as Muraheleen continues unabated just as it did in the nineteenth century. The trafficking of human cargo follows a well-established route between the southern Sudan, where the writ of law has been eradicated by more than thirty years of rebellion against the Arab-dominated government of the north.

This May, Mary Anne visited Eritrea to assess humanitarian needs and further RI's campaign against the forced recruitment of Ethiopian child soldiers. While she was there, renewed fighting broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea, forcing RI to quickly reassess Eritrea's humanitarian needs as the most vulnerable 20% of the population - women, children and the elderly - fled aerial and artillery attacks and invading Ethiopian troops.

RI Makes Food Relief a Priority

Millions of people around the globe depend on food supplied by donors through the World Food Programme (WFP). In Africa, drought and large increases in refugee, internally displaced, and war-affected populations have led to the threat of famine.

The food situation in the Horn of Africa, particularly Ethiopia, has recently dominated media coverage, but the people of Mozambique, Madagascar, the Great Lakes Region, and Coastal West Africa are also threatened. Refugees International is gravely concerned that these shortfalls will lead to breaks in the food pipeline, placing countless people at risk of malnutrition and starvation. WFP emergency relief and development programs in Africa face an average shortfall of 62 percent of the food needed this year.

Assessing the food needs of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) is an integral part of RI missions. RI Field Advocate, Anne Costello, recently returned from Mozambique and Madagascar where she evaluated emergency food distribution to flood-affected people. Mary Anne Fitzgerald, RI's Africa Representative, just completed a mission to Eritrea where she assessed the food needs of IDPs. Senior Advocate Steve Smith is looking into the food situation for refugees in Zambia and regroupment camps in Burundi. RI Field Advocate, Sayre Nyce, is in Guinea assessing the food needs of Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees. In all of these cases, massive food shortfalls remain unpublicized and, for the most part, unrecognized.

Although refugees are able to grow some of their own food, refugee access to arable land is limited or restricted by host government policies. Under these conditions, refugees have little choice but to rely on WFP rations to meet basic needs.

Late last year the impact of inadequate resources became clear when UNHCR announced its intention to end food assistance to 120,000 Liberian refugees in the forest region of Guinea. RI kept abreast of the situation as the food crisis became imminent. We recently learned that beginning this summer, food for refugees in Tanzania, Guinea, and Zambia will have serious shortfalls or, even worse, may run out.

The African food emergency is a top priority for us. Recently, RI wrote Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to ask the US government to take leadership in filling the gaps created by the shortfalls. Additional efforts are required on the part of all donors.

RI will continue to monitor the situation through our ongoing missions to Africa. We will continue to press for donors to step forward and meet WFP and UNHCR requests for the millions of Africans who rely on food aid.

Remembering Penny and David McCall and Yvette Pierpaoli

In this bureaucratic world, Penny, David, and Yvette had a unique way of solving humanitarian problems. When they saw something that needed fixing, they fixed it.

In 1997, the McCalls and Yvette visited a village in Cambodia where there was no source of good water. The consequences were malaria, dengue fever, and other illnesses, especially for children. David said "dig some wells" and a local Frenchman and his men dug ten of them and provided pumps. This took a week and cost $1,500. In an excerpt from his journal, David wrote, "Never has such a small contribution given such undeserved pleasure to its donors. The pumps were dubbed 'Penny Pumps', and they will live in our memory embodied by the happy, healthy faces of this community's children."

Yvette had a similar direct generosity. On her sixtieth birthday, her present to herself was a parcel of land in Cambodia which she gave to three destitute homeless families. One of the husbands was handicapped - he had lost both legs due to a land mine. This couple had also adopted two orphaned children. Executive Director of RI-Japan and RI Board member Geraldine Willcox visited these families earlier this year while on a mission to Cambodia. "The three families which were Yvette's special concern are doing well," Geraldine reported. "The handicapped man is amazing, and his land is by far the best looked after. You can see that he works day and night in the fields."

Geraldine also visited another project in the nearby village. The McCalls and Yvette had started a project to feed soya milk, bread and eggs to schoolchildren who had been extremely malnourished. Geraldine reported, "The project is going well and has been taken over by another organization that will continue these efforts as long as needed." Penny, David, and Yvette were killed April 18, 1999 in Albania while on an RI mission to assist Kosovar refugees. But their work lives on, and we honor their legacy by assisting the grassroots projects they inspired and supported with their hearts and pocketbooks.

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Founded in 1979, Refugees International (RI) is a non-profit advocacy organization based in Washington, DC. RI accepts no government or UN funding, making it an independent voice on behalf of refugees and the displaced throughout the world.