A camp on the safe side of death and despair: In the tales of loss and exile in Sierra Leone's civil war, Richard Dowden discovers refugees have not lost hope

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GONDAMA camp consists of rows of small, square mud-and-stick huts with grass roofs packed together on the south bank of the river. Each hut is numbered, and there are schools and churches of mud and grass, and large open shacks for funerals and weddings. The camp is neat and clean, the passages between the huts are swept daily. Only on the edge of the camp is there a whiff of excrement.

About 40,000 people live here, refugees from Sierra Leone's civil war in the east. The first exhausted bands wandered into Bo town, seven miles away, in April 1991, but in July 1991 most of them went home to plant their crops. A second attack in June last year made them flee again. A huge column of them moved towards Bo town, but the army stopped them, settling them on the scrub-covered terrace above the river. At first they took water from the river, but now a scheme funded by West Germany is drilling bore holes. The people immediately organised themselves into their village communities, and began to cultivate the slope down to the river, though they had only one hole in the camp.

Now there are three acres of sweet potatoes, cassava and okra. How they will protect and share them when they are ripe, God knows, but they assured me people know what is theirs. In the meantime food rations of wheat and cooking oil are provided by Catholic Relief Services, while the Red Cross provides some medical services.

The children are thin, but there have been no deaths from hunger, and the death rate is comparable to that in surrounding villages.

It may seem strange to feel cheerful about 40,000 people living in such conditions - they are just a drop in Africa's 5 million refugees, and their story of flight is typical - but Gondama is one of Africa's best refugee camps.

No one is starving, the camp is not vulnerable to attack, nor does it suffer from the despair of those who have given up hope of returning home. Gondama gives an impression of order, but patience and hope are balanced by a sense of waste as young men sit idle in their huts. The only way to earn money is to walk to the forest to find firewood to sell.

Peter Massaquoi, who showed me round the camp, was away from his home when the rebels attacked last year, and he reached his family on the road. He had only the clothes he had gone to work in, and his family had to leave their old people behind. They met an old blind man abandoned on the road and brought him into the family. He still lives with them. 'On the road we were fed by whatever people gave us,' says Peter who now acts as a camp organiser.

Most people in the camp do nothing all day. In one hut I found a young man suffering from mild fever who had just been released from prison. Arrested by the army on suspicion of being a rebel, he was detained for 10 months. He had made his way 150 miles to the camp only to find his family were not there. He was penniless, about 200 miles from home, unsure where his family were. He borrowed the bus fare into Bo and went on his way.

Outside the next hut a woman was lying on the ground about to give birth. She seemed utterly relaxed, but the heat was excruciating. A few huts further on I met Amadu Kaikai, a prematurely old woman nursing the four-day-old baby of her husband's second wife, Mamawa, who stood deferentially behind her. In her hut I counted 11 people, but they could not all fit on the bare earth floor. Amadu lived with her husband, his second wife and their nine children, but she showed me her neatly folded registration paper which said only four people lived there. This meant she got the equivalent of half a bowl of wheat to keep them going for a month. The family had been forced to flee their home in the next province when rebels attacked their village at night 'The first thing was the boom of a rocket-propelled grenade,' she said. 'We ran with whatever we could grab in the dark and hid in the forest.

'We were 15 in the family. My father died on the way for want of water . . . Many from other families died. Then we had scrutiny by the army at road blocks, sometimes they stole our things, and they took away some people and accused them of being rebels.' When would she go back? 'Not until we are sure the rebels have been driven away. We don't want a repeat of June 1992 when we came back, harvested our rice and were driven away and lost everything again.'

As we left, Peter suddenly looked back at the camp and said: 'Unless we share we will become weak. If we share we will become strong.'

(Photograph omitted)