Uganda refugees build camp of plenty

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The Independent Online
YOU CAN buy ice-cold beer in Ogujebe refugee camp and sit in a little video cinema while you drink it. On market stalls there are piles of second-hand clothes - known here as 'dead white men', as the concept of giving away clothes before you die is unthinkable here.

There are fresh vegetables and fruit, meat and fish. In fact you can buy almost anything obtainable in Kampala, the capital city more than 200 miles away. There are discotheques, bicycle shops and radio repair shops. One trader told me that people even come from Zaire to buy goods with gold.

In contrast to this bustling commercial metropolis, the local town, Adjumani, is a sleepy, sterile place where even at its inaptly named Climax Inn there is only the ubiquitous Coca- Cola and a few bottles of warm beer.

Ogujebe lies in a dry, rocky landscape in northern Uganda where almost nothing grows. It is a huge, sprawling camp established about five years ago. The people are Mahdis, Kukus, Baris, Acholis and other tribes from southern Sudan. They fled from the war between the Khartoum government and the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army (SPLA) and now live in huts of mud and thatch.

Officially this is a transit camp from which the refugees should be settled farther away from the border and given land on which they can grow food to support themselves. But no one wants to move.

Refugees appear the weakest people on earth, but in fact they have all the power of vulnerability. They exaggerate, lie, cheat and refuse to be passive victims and do as they are told. They are often at loggerheads with those who try to care for them - and sometimes they win a little. At Ogujebe the refugees are winning at the moment. How can people who were poor when they left their homes and arrived here starving and carrying only what they could on their heads, now enjoy such relative opulence? The answer is the bane of refugee aid workers' lives: numbers.

The Ugandan government and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees say there are 102,000 of them, but according to aid workers in the camp there are only about 80,000. Registering refugee numbers is a perennial nightmare, as some try to register twice or more. The World Food Programme provides food for 102,000. Four hundred grams of cereal per day per person, 60 grams of beans and 25 of oil - that is the UNHCR ration.

The refugees have harnessed the surplus to provide a few 'extras' and establish a flourishing market. There is, for example, a flourishing trade in old European Community rapeseed oil cans. Still displaying gold stars on a blue background' they are hammered into doors and windows or made into neat little trunks.

The market is run by a company called the Adjumani Good Will Co Ltd, which bought the concession from the local administration and collects the ground rents from the shopkeepers. The camp leaders know the UN aid system well, since many of them worked for the organisation in the camps for Ugandan refugees in southern Sudan 10 years ago.

In the corner of the food market I found some sheepish looking traders whose shed was stacked with sacks of beans, maize and oil. They shrugged when we asked them where it came from. Police on the checkpoint to the camp have noted army lorries leaving fully laden.

Food monitors estimate that about 15 to 20 per cent is being resold by the refugees to traders who use the army to remove it from the camp. Maize is bought in the camp for about 6,000 Uganda Shillings (about pounds 4) per 90-kilogram bag. In Kampala the price is about 12,000 shillings. The WFP reckons that it may be buying its own food back in Kampala and sending it back up to the camps. The surplus in the camp is funding what has become the largest market in the region.

Aid workers accept that it is better to oversupply than undersupply, and that refugees are entitled to sell any surplus. Five to 10 per cent is considered a reasonable surplus, but this has got out of hand, and Trevor Page, director of the WFP in Kampala, is threatening to cut supplies by 30 per cent to stop the profiteering.

But the numbers game is a difficult one to play. Despite the 'success' of Ogujebe, refugees in remote camps may not be getting their full ration, and one television shot of a hungry child can make a decision to cut food supplies seem callous.

The profiteering also comes at a time when more refugees are coming over from Sudan because of the upsurge in fighting. The region may soon need more food, not less.