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For Somali refugees, the road leads from one misery to another

Nearly 300,000 have fled war-torn Somalia, leaving behind livelihoods and lost loved ones for the grim, overcrowded refugee camps of Kenya. And still more are coming all the time.

October 18, 2010|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Dadaab, Kenya — He buried his children and fled west across the border to a new country.

Young soldiers with rifles pass as Mohamed Abdul walks in the clothes of a refugee, a man who once owned several houses and a kiosk in that whitewashed and bloodied city by the sea: Mogadishu, Somalia.

Things taken, life whittled, and suddenly he is in Kenya, angry and lost amid tents and huts. Girls in candy-colored dresses run along barbed wire, and a tanker truck called the Sewage Buster rumbles beneath the blue flags of the United Nations. Dadaab glows in a web of thinning lights until dawn, when tribesmen stir and refugees gather documents and wait for stamps of approval that will move them closer to something, although they don't know what.

"Before the war, life was so nice," says Abdul, "but it was lost in a single day."

The whistle of a rocket, the rain of wood and mortar, limp children pulled from splinters and two graves dug. And then, as if all of you that existed before had been erased, there comes the weeklong walk into a wilderness of warlords and militants and thousands just like you.

"Sometimes I get the job of loading food into a wheelbarrow and running from hut to hut," he says. "The food is too little. There's no milk, no sugar for our tea. There are no real jobs. They only thing you have in a refugee camp is peace from rifles and bombs."

Nearly 300,000 Somalis have fled to eastern Kenya, living in U.N. camps meant to hold 90,000. Some have been here for nearly two decades; others wandered in days ago. They come in by flood and trickle, the pace of their arrivals an eerie gauge of the pulse of violence in their native land. Their dead are laid in foreign soil, their new are born in borrowed beds far from the farms and fishing villages of their ancestors. Radios crackle with news from home.

Somali government forces and troops from the African Union control only a small section of Mogadishu, where Al Qaeda-linked Shabab militants are battling to impose a strict, even fanatical, Islamic state. Fighting has spread across the country over the last three years in the latest incarnation of a civil war that has seethed since the last functioning Somali regime collapsed in 1991.

The refugee routes out of Somalia are well-trod, but in exile, repose is scarce.

"We have today almost 700,000 Somali refugees, plus 1.4 million displaced inside Somalia. And again we see Somalis everywhere. And again we see Somalis, particularly, targeted with all forms of discrimination and suffering dramatically, namely when in the hands of smugglers or traffickers," Antonio Guterres, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, said recently. "And some of them being killed, being raped, being tortured. A very dramatic situation, being rejected by societies everywhere."

So far this year, about 42,000 Somalis have arrived in Dadaab, where there is not enough shelter or sanitation facilities, and medical programs are overwhelmed with ailments including war wounds and malnutrition. Thousands more refugees have sneaked across the border and dodged police checkpoints, following goat and camel paths through the bush and around villages toward Nairobi and Mombasa.

Ibrahim Hussein Abu-Bakr doesn't even dream of a place with such a pretty name as Mombasa, and he suspects he'll never again harvest mangoes and pineapples on his four-acre farm in Somalia.

He arrived in Kenya four years ago with his wife and children. A wisp of a man, he seems delicate as a bird. His face at 80 barely wrinkled, he speaks slowly, gazing at low moving clouds. He had come to Dadaab to visit his ill son and is waiting for travel documents to return to his camp hundreds of miles to the northwest. He has been here a month, sitting every morning in the shade, hoping for the necessary stamps from Kenyan officials.

"They keep telling me the papers are ready, but they never are," he says. "My son has mental problems. I don't know if he'll ever be the same. I will never get back to Somalia. My life is in a refugee camp. This is where I shall die."

He speaks of men with guns, how fast they swept between the fields, burning and killing.

"There's no land for me to farm in Kenya," he says. "It was good, though, once in Somalia. I planted my crops and supported my family. We farmers sat around the market and told stories and then we went back and worked our lands. We were happy before it all started."

Abu-Bakr is sitting under the shade of a tree with Mohamed Farah, who says that one day he "just couldn't take it anymore" and he ran from Mogadishu "amid great fighting." Paperwork, he needed paperwork, although this was odd to him, to stand in line for it after all that had happened. Tears come to his eyes, but do not fall. It is the trick of refugees here, hovering on the brink, to swallow suffering to get through another day.

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