Mozambican war over, but refugees still crowd into tiny, dirt-poor Malawi

MWANZA, MALAWI — MWANZA, Malawi -- The only thing in abundance in this dirt-poor African country is refugees from the war next door. There is a food shortage, a water shortage and a money shortage here, but still the refugees keep coming from Mozambique.

They come pouring in with little more than the rags on their backs in search of safety, stability and food. And they are still arriving, at a rate of at least 1,000 a day, despite a cease-fire agreement last month that formally ended 17 years of warfare.


More than 1 million Mozambican refugees are crushed into Malawi, a small country of 9 million people in south-central Africa. Almost 54,000 arrived between July and September, even as the cease-fire was anticipated.

"They are running away from civil strife, but also from hunger. They come because they want something to eat," said Stewart Winga, head of Malawi's emergency relief program.


In the six years since the Mozambican conflict intensified, the people of that country have sought refuge in several neighboring countries, including South Africa, Zimbabwe and Tanzania. But no other place has absorbed the amount of foreigners that flooded into Malawi.

They crowd into sprawling refugee camps on land designated by the Malawi government. The United Nations distributes food, clothing and medicine.

"We have an open border. People can just walk in," said Mr. Winga. "Malawi is attractive because there's peace here and stability."

Can't feed their own

Malawi is a special place in the catalog of countries facing starvation. For years it fed the Mozambican refugees who fled here, but now it can barely feed its own people.

Lately Malawi has been affected by the worst drought ever to hit the southern African region, and a severe food shortage has rendered the local people desperate and hungry.

"Malawi is a poor country. It's overpopulated. They have problems of their own," said Yima Makonnen of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which has an office in the Malawi capital, Lilongwe.

"In Malawi, one child in three dies before the age of 5 in normal times," said Jean Marc Margin of the World Food Program, which is distributing free food donated by Western countries to hungry Malawians.


With Malawi's home-grown problems, the prospect of so many refugees putting pressure on this country's resources has aroused resentment. There have been skirmishes between refugees and native Malawians.

"There have been raids on a number of our supplies," said Mr. Makonnen, the UNHCR official. "We have difficulties from the local population and also from the starving supporters of Frelimo and Renamo," the two sides in the Mozambican war.

Frelimo, the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique, is the political party that has run the government since it gained independence from the Portuguese in 1975. Renamo is the Portuguese acronym for the rebel group, the Movement for National Resistance, which received support from South Africa during the 1980s.

Supporters from the two warring sides -- as well as simple peasants caught in the middle -- flocked to Malawi in desperation.

"The starving was too much," said Andre Pequenino, a 26-year-old Mozambican who walked several days with one leg and a crutch to reach Malawi in October. His other leg was blown off by a land mine in 1989 after his village was attacked by Renamo soldiers and he was being marched away, he said.

"The starving was too much, and the war was too much," he said in an interview under the trees at Ndelema camp here at Mwanza, where there are more than 150,000 refugees.


Mwanza is the only district in Malawi that is still accepting refugees. Camps in other parts of the country have been closed to new arrivals because of lack of space.

Tribal brotherhood

Malawi officials say there are places where foreigners outnumber local people, such as Nsanje, a town at the southern tip of Malawi, where there are 200,000 locals and 300,000 Mozambicans.

"The impact of the refugees on the environment is enormous," said Mr. Winga, the Malawi disaster assistance official. "Refugees have been with us since 1986.

"We've been incurring hidden costs for years. We share our health and education facilities. In hospitals, there are Mozambicans sleeping in beds while Malawians sleep on the floor," he said.

Mr. Winga said Malawians have accepted their neighbors because they are generous people. The government likes to call Malawi "the warm heart of Africa," a slogan that shows up frequently on advertisements for visitors to Malawi's big tourist attraction, Lake Malawi.


But another reason the Mozambicans are accepted is tribe, which has a strong influence on most African affairs. Northern Mozambicans and southern Malawians are all from the Sena tribe, which was split by the artificial borders of European colonialists.

When the refugees began to arrive in large numbers in 1986, the Malawi government negotiated with local chiefs to donate sections of land within their jurisdiction for refugee camps. Now it says there is no more land to donate.

"Our camps have reached a saturation point. We can't absorb any more arrivals," he said. "We're saying that with the peace accord, let's find some safe havens back in Mozambique."

The biggest problem since the drought is that refugees are getting more food than Malawians, who also are queuing up this year for handouts from international aid agencies.

The two populations are served by different programs. UNHCR has a special program for refugees, under which it distributes food packages containing maize flour, oil and peas every two weeks.

Malawi residents whose crops failed this year are not so lucky. They depend on a less reliable pipeline, food donated by Western countries in response to the Malawi government's emergency appeal last February.


After a shipment of 135,000 tons in May, food has been slow in arriving, ironically because some of it must be trucked through insecure Mozambique. By the beginning of November, warehouses supplied by donor nations were virtually empty, and the World Food Program was warning of starvation if food did not arrive soon.

"The situation is very critical," said Philip Ostenso, field director for the World Food Program in Lilongwe. "If we don't get shipments of 2,000 tons a day from now on, there are definitely going to be deaths."