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Where Somalia's Forsaken Live

Aid workers describe Mogadishu camps for displaced families as among the worst they've seen. But the warlords' defeat has raised hopes.

October 09, 2006|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

MOGADISHU, Somalia — They are the refugees no one remembers.

They fled their homes and farms more than a decade ago, after the small minority clans to which most of them belong were targeted by larger, rival tribes when Somalia's government collapsed in 1991 and the Horn of Africa nation slipped into civil war.

About 200,000 rushed to Mogadishu, hoping the capital would provide protection and assistance. But when warlords chased away U.S. troops and humanitarian organizations evacuated amid growing violence, these displaced Somalis were abandoned in half a dozen camps around the city.

At Isbartibo camp on the edge of Mogadishu, winding, narrow dirt paths cut through misshapen huts, pieced together with whatever scraps residents could find: twisted tree branches, milk cartons, an old pair of pants. One hut is made of rusting automobile parts, including a door frame and hubcaps.

There are eight toilets for 10,000 people. No school or health clinic. Despite the obvious poverty, warlords collected "rent" from the displaced families, burning down the huts of those who refused to pay.

The last time an international aid worker visited was nearly six months ago, camp leaders say. The World Food Program hasn't sent representatives in eight years, they say.

And whenever help has been provided, such as when the International Rescue Committee delivered plastic sheeting, food baskets and cooking pots six months ago, robbers and looters followed close behind.

"If we get something during the day, it's robbed that night," said Mohammed Abdulkhadir Abdullahi, chief of the camp.

Aid workers describe the Mogadishu camps as among the worst they have seen, largely because of years of neglect and inaccessibility to humanitarian assistance.

Even such dire places as Sudan's Darfur region have better infrastructure, such as schools, health facilities and regular aid distributions.

"Usually people in camps are able to accumulate something after a while," said Kenny Gluck, acting director for Doctors Without Borders in Somalia. "These camps still look as if the people have just arrived."

Most international groups deemed it too dangerous to maintain operations in the city. Because the camps are located in urban neighborhoods, aid workers feared that distribution of food and supplies would spur chaos by attracting Somalis who did not live in the camps but were also struggling with poverty.

"If we did a distribution, every person and every gunman in the city would show up," said John Miskell, head of CARE International's Mogadishu office. Although he has lived in the city throughout the instability, he hasn't felt safe enough to visit the camps in years.

With the Islamic Courts Union militia's victory over Mogadishu warlords in June, security has returned to the capital, raising hopes in the Isbartibo camp. Although it lacks security, the camp hasn't been attacked in four months.

Now some aid groups are considering a return to Mogadishu.

The city's displaced families "are on our agenda," said Leo van der Velden, in charge of the World Food Program's Somalia mission. The United Nations agency is reviewing whether the city is safe enough to add staffers and launch a school feeding program.

At the same time, however, the recent killing of an Italian nun, who taught at a nursing school in Mogadishu, and a car bombing in Baidoa have given aid groups pause.

In September, the U.N. withdrew 47 international staffers from Somalia as a security precaution, though some recently started returning.

The Islamic courts leaders have visited the camp to assess the needs and encouraged local business leaders to help out voluntarily. "But it's up to the international community and aid agencies to help these people," said Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, who heads the courts council.

Most everyone in the camp works odd jobs, pushing wheelbarrows, shining shoes, cleaning homes and peddling roasted peanuts to earn money for food.

When Roble Isaac, 35, was diagnosed with tuberculosis last year, he said, he resorted to begging to raise the money he needed for medicine. Measles and malaria also are common.

Abdullahi, the camp leader, arrived in 1993. He, his wife and four small children fled clan-related attacks against their village in central Somalia, losing 100 head of cattle, a parcel of land and a small clothing shop. They walked 350 miles to Mogadishu. During the trip, all his children succumbed to hunger or disease. His wife died shortly after arrival, he said.

Like most, Abdullahi, now remarried with five children, said he had no home to return to. "We lost everything," he said. "And no one will help us."

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

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