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Letter from Wad Sheriffe: Supermarket city of well-fed refugees

1985 November 4
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by Paul Vallely

Vivid pink flowers, the product of assiduous watering and jealous protection, grow now in the bare dust outside one of Wad Sheriffe’s half dozen clinics. Substantial dirt roads have been worn between the rows of shelters and tents. Their inmates somehow found the wherewithal to acquire a little livestock; donkeys wander the camp’s crowded square mile and the odd goat can be found grubbing in the dust.

Sudan’s largest refugee camp is now taking on a disconcerting atmosphere of permanence. What was once an emergency refuge has become a food aid shanty town which United Nations officials are admitting may be here for another 10 or 12 years.


Its inhabitants, smiling and well-fed, queue for their rations in distribution centres which are as well-organized as Western supermarkets. Each has four check-outs, complete with a maze of wooden barriers to shepherd the Ethiopian refugees every 10 days through a series of pick-up points to collect their five kilos of cereal, 600 grams of black beans, 600 mls of oil, cake of soap and, on every third visit, a ration of salt and sugar.

The supplies stand on stout wooden pallets in large piles which are regularly replenished from the camp’s central stores. At the moment Wad Sheriffe consumes 800 tons of food every day.

The clinics are quite and efficient too. Malnutrition rates which stood at 50 per cent in February are, even including new arrivals, down to 20 per cent. There is flesh on the biceps and thighs of adults and children.

The stench so characteristic of these places, a sickly-sweet miasmic odour of sweat, faeces and decay, has almost disappeared. The death rate, once more than 100 people a day, is now lower than that of a modern European city of comparative size.

‘The problem is what do we do with these people now’, says Mr Jim Carl, a planning officer with the UN’s Development Programme in Khartoum. ‘Most of them are refugees from war rather than famine. They cannot go home because the fighting continues, but because they want to return eventually they cannot be permanently resettled elsewhere in Sudan.

‘There is no seasonal labour for them here, there is not even enough for the native Sudanese. And the land at Wad Sheriffe is so poor that they cannot farm it. What is the alternative to carrying on feeding them, even if it is for 10 or 12 years?’

Some attempts have been made to reduce the size of the huge camp. There are regular plans to ferry refugees to other camps, like the one in Central Region at Fau V created for this purpose. But at the last report Fau V was still empty and the Swiss Disaster Team which has been waiting there since spring was threatening to leave. The shipment of refugees from Kassala to Central Region is fraught with political complications for the Sudanese.

A further complication is that the Eritreans themselves prefer life at Wad Sheriffe, within sight of the hills of their homeland. Whenever attempts have been made to move them in the past thousands have disappeared overnight into the hills, the surrounding villages or into the town of Kassala itself.

People come and go with such regularity that the number officially registered in the camp is now always out of touch with reality. Official figures at present say 185,000; aid workers estimate around 130,000.

The numbers have been swollen in the past four months by an extra 50,000 refugees from the increased fighting in Eritrea. More than 15,000 arrived in the days after the rebel-held town of Barentu fell to the Ethiopian Army and its Koonamah militia began bayoneting civilians in reprisal executions, according to Mr Mohammed Osman, the Sudanese administrator of Wad Sheriffe.

When last I met him eight months ago he was happily talking about the imminent closure of the place and his return to his vocation as a development agronomist. Today that event seems further off than ever.

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