Living testament to Somalia's descent into hell

 

A Kenyan refugee camp is host to 280,000 Somalis, who have fled the brutality of their homeland, writes  ROB CRILLYin Dadaab, Kenya

THE WORLD’S largest refugee camp in a sandy corner of Kenya stands as a miserable testament to Somalia’s descent into hell.

Dadaab camp should not still be here, 18 years after it was built. It should not be home to 280,000 people who dream of a new life in America rather than returning across the border.

Yet still they come, riding in trucks or on donkeys before completing their journey by walking miles through a desiccated landscape.

About 500 people are arriving every day as Islamist insurgents battle a fragile government: people such as Abdirahman Sharif Mohamed, who reached safety last week after a series of chilling telephone threats.

“They said they would kill me if they found me,” said the father-of-six. “They told me since I was working for the government they wanted me dead.” The digital watch on his wrist was a symbol that he was a man of means.

His job as a nightwatchman at government offices in the capital Mogadishu earned him $2 a day – enough to look after his family.

“I was born in Mogadishu and decided to work for the government,” he said, sitting on a rickety bench outside the United Nations offices where he was waiting to register as a refugee. “It made me proud. It was my duty.” The job made him a target, however. His father was kidnapped and executed before Abdirahman decided to run.

There are dozens of similar stories among the families gathered around the simple huts where they wait to register for vaccinations, food and shelter.

Wives have arrived without their husbands, not knowing if they are alive or dead. Everyone has lost loved ones or watched friends shot dead.

Almost 170,000 people have left the capital Mogadishu in six weeks of fighting that has raised brutality to new levels – even by Somalia’s warped standards.

Amputations, kidnappings and murder are the tools of war.

The resurgence in violence pits the Islamist Shabaab movement against an interim government, which has struggled to assert any authority since being formed in 2004.

A moderate Islamist, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, won the presidency earlier this year.

Three years ago his Union of Islamic Courts brought stability to Somalia before being defeated by Ethiopian troops.

His Islamist background raised hopes that extremists could be brought back into the fold – hopes that have so far not been realised.

The Shabaab, considered by the US as a terrorist outfit with links to al-Qaeda, has taken over swathes of Somalia, as much through deals with local clan leaders as through force.

On Thursday, its militants punished four men convicted of stealing mobile phones and guns by cutting off a hand and a foot each. Two hooded men applied tourniquets before using a traditional curved sword to carry out the sentence of a sharia court.

At the same time, the state department confirmed the US was sending arms and ammunition to the government and would also help train its troops to fight the Islamist threat.

Dadaab – actually three camps in one – stands as a testament to the world’s failure to find end Somalia’s strife.

When it was opened in 1991 no one believed Kenya would still be hosting Somali’s refugees almost two decades later.

Today, it is more of a city than a camp. Tangles of wire carry electricity from thrumming generators to internet cafes, cinemas showing Bollywood movies and kiosks selling mobile phones, all run by refugee entrepreneurs.

Its boreholes are at stretching point and aid workers fear outbreaks of disease if the sprawling site’s 35,000 latrines are not renovated.

Every day the camp generates 300 tonnes of waste that need to be removed. The United Nations is trying to find more land to accommodate the 500 people arriving every day, but faces resistance from a government wary of the arrivals.

Anne Campbell, head of the UN’s refugee agency in Dadaab, said the new arrivals were exacerbating long-standing problems.

“The long rains will be here in October,” she said. “We could have flooding and very often in this kind of place that means cholera.”

And there are still the first wave of refugees, those who arrived with the collapse of Siad Barre’s government in 1991, who know they have little prospect of going back.

Saharo Sheikh Mohamed has not left the camp in 18 years. Her dream is to be one of the lucky ones chosen to be resettled in the US.

“We would prefer any country where we could live peacefully,” she said.