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The Refugee Camp

During the past few weeks, a new refugee camp has been set up some 15 kms west of Luena, at the end of a road recently cleared by the Mines Advisory Group. The road leads to a little village which hasn't been used for years, due to the danger of mines. The former residents recently returned to village, and started to rebuild their lives there. The refugee camp is just across the road.

The refugee camp has an area of about 50x100 metres. 300 families live here – a total of about 1,200 people. My first impression is unspectacular, as I always think of something huge when I think of refugee camps. But I am struck by the lack of height here: nothing stands above 1,2 metres from the ground. When they're lucky, a family makes a home-base out of two or three sticks, and a plastic sheet.

If they are lucky, and managed to get one of the last plastic sheets provided by the Lutherans, a family of up to seven people occupies a space of 6-8 square metres, and has a shelter from the sun and heavy seasonal rains. Those who aren't so lucky, or have just arrived, often don't even have a roof over their heads. Some branches, sticks, and a blanket on the ground have to do. Everything is very dry at the moment, but after rain, it's the opposite: the sandy ground changes into a complete muddy mess. Here and there are fires, with beans cooking over them. Women grind maniok and maize. Children run around and play with a toy very common here: a bicycle wheel. Many children are crying. Those who are ill are coughing, or just lying around, weak, in the shadows of the tents. There are flies everywhere. The hygienic standards and living conditions here are dire.

I see an old woman lying on her side under a tent made out of a small green cloth. She is lying on her side, and is hardly recognisable as a human being, she's so thin. I can only see her backbone, with some tattoos – probably from a happier time in her life. She'll very likely die soon – from starvation.

Many adults here seem to have fevers, open wounds, respiratory diseases, etc. And they're hungry, of course. The WFP and other food care organisations will start to provide supplies to the camp in a few days.

So, as of yet, there is literally no help here, except from village residents who offer sleeping places to the poorest, and exchange mushrooms and vegetables for the maize the refugees receive. The camp isn't helped by the government. This fact is a symptom of a new phase of the ongoing war. In order to weaken the Savimbi and UNITA infrastructures, the government deports people from the areas still under UNITA control, or where they are suspected to be hiding. They use helicopters. The helicopters land in villages quite far from Luena. Then, they are taken to Luena and to this camp, and are given a bowl of maize. They have brought hardly anything with them. 100 people a day. In November, they had 4,000 IDPs in Luena.

The guerrilla fish are swimming in the people water. Old guerrilla tactics. Drying out the river where the fishes are swimming. Old tactics against guerrillas. We walk around and I shoot some video, hoping to gather material that might renew interest in the situation here, in Angola, and in Luena.

In the evening, when I watch the material, I realise how touched and devastated I feel. This isn't a professional journalist's video, rather, it's some footage taken by an alien from another planet, who just happened to get stranded in a refugee camp. I understand that as a journalist, your camera has to stare at people and situations in the same way that your eyes stare. You can't cover the camera's view. You have to lift it up to your eyes, and look through... And stare at the terrible conditions.

I also learned something about dimensions. Large dimensions are always scary. And what I thought I knew about refugee camps, was that they are always huge. But this is not true. You might find very large camps in Pakistan, for example. But the spectators in any football stadium outnumber the people trying to survive in the biggest refugee camp. Once you know this, the situation's dimension is no longer so abstract. Then, you have a better basis from which you can act, rather than give up ("There is no help!").

People are still dying in these refugee camps – there is still hunger, there is still disease. There are abandoned lands, broken families, and lost relatives. There is a war causing all of that. But the manageable size gives you the choice – and the chance – to make a constructive decision.

If you are considering allowing the situation to move you, just think about the court you played football in for ages. This camp is no bigger…