/ 17 June 2009

‘Here, I feel no fear, I don’t hear machine guns’

They come in their thousands, travelling across Somalia’s arid landscape to seek out a new life far from the guns and bombs that have ravaged their country for almost two decades.

Those who can afford it make the journey in packed buses. The others trudge hundreds of kilometres, risking attack by militiamen, bandits and hyenas that have developed a taste for human flesh.

At the end of the journey, in east Kenya, lies the cold comfort of Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, now buckling under the weight of almost 280 000 souls.

Asli Omar Aden (32) is one of more than 30 000 Somalis to have fled to Dadaab this year, bringing her two children, aged seven and 10, with her.

It took the family two weeks to walk from Mogadishu, where battles between government forces and insurgents have killed hundreds of civilians and displaced more than 120 000 since early May.

”When the fighting started, my husband was in the market … there was machine-gun fire between us,” she says as she shelters beneath a tree waiting be registered at Dadaab. ”I do not know where he is now.”

Aden remained in Somalia throughout 19 years of conflict, which began when dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted in 1991. The inter-clan conflicts that followed gave way in early 2007 to an Islamist insurgency — prompted by Ethiopia’s invasion — which has killed an estimated 18 000 civilians.

When moderate Islamist Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a former insurgent ally, was appointed as president this year, Aden began to hope for peace.

But her hopes were dashed when insurgent groups al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam launched their recent offensive against Sheik Sharif.

As the latest round of bullets flew around her, she knew it was time to go.

”There is no hope for peace in Somalia,” she says.

Newcomers — currently arriving at a rate of 500 per day — see Dadaab as a refuge from both the fighting and a drought that has left millions of Somalis dependent on food aid.

”Here, I feel no fear, I don’t hear machine guns, I don’t see bombs,” says Magala Nuur (40), who lost her husband and a son to fighting in Kolbio, south Somalia. ”I want to settle here.”

However, once the initial relief has worn off, many dream of escape from the camp.

”I only stay because it is peaceful,” says Amina Mohamed Hassan (23), a stallholder who has lived in Dadaab for 11 months. ”I want to be resettled somewhere that will offer a better life.”

Hassan supplements her daily rations by selling vegetables and other odds and ends brought in from the nearby town of Garissa. Her unofficial business makes her luckier than most. But she still has to face massive overcrowding.

Dadaab’s three camps — Ifo, Hagadera and Dagahaley — were built in the early 1990s to accommodate 90 000 refugees, but Somalia’s never-ending conflict has forced the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) to keep cramming them in.

The congestion is straining the camp’s infrastructure, particularly its water supply.

Hassan’s makeshift stall sits on the edge of the emergency tented section in Ifo. While the camp’s older areas look more like villages, complete with large markets, this area is grim.

Rubbish litters the narrow gaps between UNHCR tents, ratty mattresses and washing lie across the thornbush barriers erected to stake out territory, and huge holes in the dry, sandy soil mark where refugees have excavated earth to build huts.

UNHCR officials say in some cases up to 30 people are living on plots designed for a family of five. But the agency can do little to ease the overcrowding. It has no more land to allocate.

The agency has requested land for a fourth camp, but the Kenyan government, concerned about the size of Dadaab, is reluctant to comply.

”The biggest issue is land — if we get it it will solve many issues,” says Anne Campbell, head of UNHCR’s sub-office in Dadaab. ”We could have more boreholes and settle people in a more humanitarian way.”

The UNHCR has come under fire from some human rights bodies, who say the camp is a mess. But others feel the criticism is unfair.

”Considering the number of people arriving and the constraints, the agencies have done what they can,” says Yves Horent, head of the Kenya office at the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO), which funds some of the agencies in the camp.

”People are surviving, which is a success, but surviving is not living,” he adds. ”That is the next challenge.”

However, with peace in Somalia a distant prospect, the camp’s population set to exceed 300 000 in the near future despite the lack of space, and a funding shortage brought on by the global financial crisis, it seems survival is all Dadaab’s residents can hope for. — Sapa-dpa