A confining peace

Botswana's only refugee camp is home to 3,000 fleeing conflict elsewhere in Africa


DUKWI, Botswana -- Beyond the open barbed-wire gate, a boulevard of sand leads to this cul-de-sac of dust, home to 3,000 people who fled conflicts in central and southern Africa that the world scarcely noticed or long ago forgot.

The Somalis, Congolese, Zimbabweans, Ugandans and citizens of a dozen other African nations living in Botswana's Dukwi refugee camp cannot, or will not, return to their original homes. The camp - six square miles of dry scrubland in northeast Botswana - is where their days blur together into one long, hot wait.

Dukwi is a product of colonialism's errors, the continent's lasting tribal rivalries, its revolutions and civil wars, as well as the international community's relief efforts. Opened in 1978 when refugees were flooding west from what was then Rhodesia, the camp has grown and contracted as crises have intensified or diminished. Relatively uncrowded during the mid-1990s, Dukwi got crowded again when Congo collapsed into violence, Angola's civil war intensified and Namibia fought a secessionist movement.

This was, and remains, the one refugee camp in Botswana, on a continent where the United Nations says 4.2 million people are refugees or "internally displaced." Half of them live in camps of some kind, and in the world of refugees, from a distance Botswana promised prosperity and peace.

This is not a place of luxury. No resident of the camp can leave Dukwi without permission from the government; children can attend school but seldom have a chance to pursue higher education. A clinic offers medical care but denies refugees AIDS medication widely available elsewhere in the country.

"For the little time I have spent here, it is just as good as hell," said the camp's newest arrival, a 23-year-old Zimbabwean who gave his name as Meluleki. He owns nothing but the donated clothes he wears and sits outside a donated tent shared with another man. "Really, I have nowhere else to go."

Dukwi's most recent census by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees found about 1,100 Namibians, 1,100 Angolans, 500 Somalis (whose country is in effect without a government), 144 Congolese (who fled violence and disease that has claimed 3 million lives) and lesser numbers from 12 other countries.

There are, in theory, three ways to leave Dukwi: Return to one's country of origin, gain permission to move to a third country or settle within Botswana. Many of the camp's Angolans have returned home, now that their country's civil war is over, and the camp's Namibians are returning, too.

But hundreds of the refugees here see no end to their stay in tattered tents or two-room concrete houses that lack electricity and running water. For them, a very real possibility is staying until they are buried under a makeshift grave marker at the cemetery on the camp's southern edge.

"After you've been in a place five, six, seven, eight years, you want to move on with your life," said Maureen Master, an American lawyer who is the senior U.N. representative at the camp. "You are not going to be grateful forever that you're not being gang-raped or watching your family killed. I wouldn't want to be confined to Paris, and I love Paris."

Everyone receives the same monthly U.N. rations: about 27 pounds of cornmeal, 3 pounds of beans, 5 pounds of sugar, a half-pound of tofu, a pint of cooking oil and a gallon of paraffin gas for heating.

And although everyone, including U.N. officials, agrees the rations are a bare minimum, those officials say it is better to provide the basics and encourage self-sufficiency, rather than risk making people even more dependent on handouts.

Dukwi residents with official refugee status can seek work outside the camp, usually in Francistown, 80 miles away, but tending cattle is the most widely available work. Inside the camp, the only job training is for making bricks from the local clay. Unemployment is well over 50 percent, the United Nations says.

Dukwi's Somalis, thanks to support from Muslim communities elsewhere, have much of what passes for the camp's wealth. They own nearly all the shops lining the main camp road and catering to the few refugees with money to spare for rice, boxed milk and other basics.

"We don't drink," said Ahmed Hassan, a Somali in his seventh year here who runs a convenience store. "Some people waste money. We don't waste money."

It's in whispers that people make known the camp's rivalries and resentments.

"Other Africans, he cannot keep money in his pocket," Hassan said softly. "He's going to buy things and drink and lose his money."

"People from East Africa, they are lazy," said Ephraim Sekeinyana, the camp director, freely criticizing people for passing up the chance to build themselves new houses. "With these houses, they have to be part and parcel - dig trenches, help build. These from East Africa, because they are educated, they shun that. Ones from Angola and Namibia, no problem, they're still primitive."

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