/ 26 October 2004

Hope without a home

The old man’s rough brown hands clutch a pile of purple animal entrails that steam in the morning chill. As he staggers away, one of the young Somali slaughterers in a coat smeared with fresh goat blood waves a dagger, and explains: “It’s all he can afford. We are all poor here. But he is the poorest. The old one has no money for good food.”

Just up the road from the Buru Buru meat market, a Sudanese man bends over a welding machine as the piercing blue-white light and shriek of the shearing metal announce the new day.

No one really knows how many refugees inhabit Nairobi, but the city teems with tens of thousands of the continent’s wounded, lost and dispossessed. Rwandans, Congolese, Eritreans, Ugandans … the list is long and attempts at a formal count have long been abandoned.

It is, however, the Somalis and Sudanese, with the protracted conflicts in their countries to the north of Kenya yet to end, who dominate life on the fringes of the commercial hub of East Africa.

Attracted by the relative prosperity of Nairobi, with its United Nations headquarters and numerous aid organisations, the refugees stream across the porous borders.

“They are coming all the time; there is little we can do,” laments Kenyan police spokesperson Jasper Ombati.

The city’s sprawling slums are brutally efficient in offering the arrivals poverty and crime. But at least it’s not war and the townships do provide informal employment.

Ongoing talks to secure lasting peace in southern Sudan, and last week’s election of an interim president for Somalia, have ignited hope among the refugees, but also confusion. “What now?” is a constant refrain. And confusing signals from their leaders that it’ll “soon” be time to go “home” — wherever that is in their devastated homelands — have only served to deepen the exiles’ anxiety.

“Peace, peace, peace, everyone says. But how can we go back? There is nothing to go back to. Even if they sign the peace, it will take many years to build things up again. I am going nowhere. I am staying here,” says Abdon Deng Malou (67), who recently moved to Nairobi from Kakuma refugee camp in the harsh semi-desert of northern Kenya.

He holds a tattered copy of the diploma he received from Yambio Agricultural College in southern Sudan, dated November 12 1968. Now, the college is gone. Swallowed by the war; the remaining ruins swallowed by the equatorial forest.

“My farm at Bor [in southern Sudan’s Jongli province] is gone too. I have nothing, just my clothes. But it’s okay. The Kenyan people are friendly and I am being helped by the UN,” whispers Malou.

Some refugees have built relatively comfortable lives for themselves in Nairobi, lives they’re reluctant to leave, no matter how many people tell them about “peace” in their previously war-torn places of birth.

“Business is good here but not in Mogadishu,” says Aden Derrow (34), who sells cellphones from a kiosk at Eastleigh estate. “My future, it is here.”

Marial Bol (24), born in the Waw district of southern Sudan and now a journalism student at a city college, arrived in Kenya when he was just six. He considers himself a Sudanese-Kenyan. “A Sudken,” Bol chuckles.

But his mirth soon turns to ire: “All these warlords and so-called leaders have the rudeness to tell the Sudanese and Somalis living here to go home, when they themselves live here in palaces and five-star hotels. And then they expect us to go home, to what? I will refuse.”

Salif Mohammed (10) was born in Nairobi. And although he speaks his parents’ language, Salif’s father, Wari, says: “My son cannot talk Somali well. He only wants to speak Swahili and English, because that is what he learns at school.

“One day we want to go [back to] Mogadishu. But how? With such a son who knows nothing of Somalia? Maybe we will go back when he is older and stronger.”

Speaking from Mogadishu, businessman Khalil Abdi offers his view on what present day Somalia will be like for President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed.

“Here right now, most people seem satisfied with Yusuf’s election. But he still has many enemies who will work against him — groups like the radical Islamists who are rising these days and even carry banners showing their sympathy for [Osama] bin Laden. There are also the separatist rebels in the north, who actually hate Yusuf.”

Armed militias still wander Somalia with impunity, but faction leader Hussein Aideed, who controls a large section of the Somali capital, has maintained that there is no need for international peacekeepers.

“Somalis are proud people; we will not allow outside forces to come in and colonise us … and even if the peace soldiers are from the AU [African Union], it will still take great work to convince my people that they are necessary,” says Aideed.

Also not willing to surrender their lives in Kenya in exchange for the uncertainty of Sudan and Somalia are the refugees Bol and Derrow.

“First I will beg them [the Kenyan authorities] to stay in Nairobi. Then, I will be fighting to stay. Because I am Somali. That is our way,” says Derrow.