Somalia’s woes grow in Kenyan refugee camps

Mohammed Abdi Guhad sits idly in the shade of a makeshift wooden kiosk, explaining his plan to return to Somalia and fight for the country’s powerful Islamist movement.

“I would rather kill than stay here doing nothing,” he says, rubbing his hands in anticipation of leaving a dusty United Nations refugee camp in north-east Kenya where he has lived since fleeing unrest in his native land six years ago.

The 24-year-old’s goal of going back to join the Islamists will send him in the opposite direction of many of his countrymen and women, who are scrambling to leave Somalia for camps like this in neighbouring Kenya in record numbers.

But as thousands cross the border the other way fearing large-scale conflict between the Islamists and the weak government, Guhad is among a growing number of poor, young Somalis at this overcrowded camp ready to head home for combat.

“I would not need money because I would be able to take up a gun and get what I need,” he says quietly, looking over the sparse array of cigarettes and sweets he sells from his stall in the market area at the sprawling Dadaab camp.

“If one has nothing to do when he is hungry, he can do anything,” says Aden Mohammed (18), who plans to take up arms for “whoever will bring peace” to Somalia when he exhausts his educational options in Dadaab next year.

It is a trend that deeply concerns aid workers who worry their return will fuel unrest in a nation that has been ripped asunder by 16 years of anarchy and see parallels with Afghan refugees in camps in Pakistan a decade ago.

“Sympathisers with both the Islamists and the government are returning to Somalia to join militias because they aren’t engaged in positive activities here,” says Mohammed Qazilbash of the relief agency Care, which works in Dadaab.

While the exact number to have returned to fight in Somalia is unknown, young idle youths make up about a third of the population here and aid workers estimate more than 500 have left in recent months with more poised to go.

Raised in the squalor of a camp amid elders’ endless debates about Somalia’s bleak situation, and with limited chances for employment and education, these youths are easy prey for recruitment from both sides, they say.

There are now more than 153 000 mainly Somalis crammed into this complex, 470km from Nairobi, which would rank as Kenya’s fifth largest city if it were classed as a municipality.

Many have lived here for years, since the 1991 ousting of strongman Mohamed Siad Barre plunged Somalia into chaos.

But 30 000 newcomers have arrived so far this year and the numbers are expected to rise exponentially in coming months, placing a severe strain on space and resources.

In two days alone last week, the UN refugee agency reported that more than 2 000 Somalis had arrived in Kenya, while the World Food Programme has warned ration cuts will begin next month if it doesn’t get urgent new funding.

“It is of major concern that if youths are not engaged in positive activities — either in job creation or skills training — that they’ll want to vent their frustrations in one way or another,” Qazilbash told Agence France-Presse.

“This has the potential to lead to the camp being used as a recruiting area for Somali militias,” said the native Pakistani, who saw exactly that while working with Afghan refugees in the early 1990s.

There, a surge of refugees and the resulting strain on resources left UN and other agencies unable to provide basics for Afghan youth, who then turned to radical Islam, swelling the ranks of the Taliban militia, Qazilbash says.

Like Afghanistan was in the 1990s, a largely moderate Muslim country wracked by years of war, Somalia is now gripped by an increasingly dominant fundamentalist Islamist movement that some see as an “African Taliban.”

Somalia’s Islamists seized Mogadishu in June from warlords after months of fierce fighting and have rapidly expanded their territory to include most of southern and central Somalia, imposing strict sharia law in areas they control.

Their rise has sparked fears of a full-on civil war, a regional conflict in the Horn of Africa region, as well as concerns of the spread of a radical brand of Islam, not least because some are accused of links with al-Qaeda.

“So far, fundamentalist ideology is not being preached here but we need to learn from the past and attempt to mitigate this problem before it evolves into that,” said Qazilbash, whose group is responsible for education at Dadaab.

Like Guhad, many of the youth here decide to leave and fight in Somalia after running into roadblocks for further education or jobs and learning of payments made by the Islamists and opposed militia.

“I can either stay here for the rest of my life or I can return to join a militia,” says Suleiman Ibrahim Barre (24), who fled his home in the southern port of Kismayo in 1992 after his parents were killed.

“I know it is dangerous and that is why I left, but there is nothing here for me.” — AFP

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