The spotlight of world concern has long since shifted from the Horn of Africa but the struggle between Somalia and Ethiopia over the wind-swept Ogaden desert threatens to flare up again without warning. In the meantime, the nomadic tribesmen who traverse the desert in search of food continue to make their way towards the Somalia border. Almost 1 million refugees have fled the disputed territory since the height of the fighting in 1977. With a population of only 5 million and an economy weakened by the war effort, Somalia can barely provide for its own people, let alone the 370,000 refugees in temporary camps and another 650,000 that have been assimilated into towns and villages. The refugee problem was anticipated by the Somali Government and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). But they were both confounded by the numbers. When the nine-month war between Ethiopia and Somalia gradually wound down in May, 1978 twenty camps were opened in preparation for an expected 80,000 refugees. That figure was surpassed in just six months.
The Somali Government has declared a state of emergency and asked for $70 million in immediate relief aid. Although the UNHCR chipped in $6 million in 1979, the overall response of the international community has been disappointing. Peter Nobel, a lawyer sent by the Swedish Foreign Ministry to investigate the problem, says if there were atrocities and horror stories the Ogaden refugees would get more international attention. But, because they’re not ‘dying like flies’ - at least not yet - the response has been muted.
Despite the shortages of food and sanitary accommodation, the refugees continue to show up at border crossing points. They are mostly women and children and old men - leading camels loaded down with tents, skins and other meagre possessions of the nomadic life.
It’s possible that the Ethiopian strategy of bombing water wells and slaughtering livestock may provide a ‘final solution’ to the Ogaden battle. In the meantime, harassment can only increase the flow of refugees. Already the region has been emptied of half its inhabitants and soon there may be no one left to fight over.