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Fleeing war and famine, fighting off attacks from bandits and lions, thousands of refugees are flooding out of Somalia on foot each week. Busted Halo contributor Laura Sheahen, a communications officer with the humanitarian aid group Catholic Relief Services, looks back on her first days in some of the refugee camps that are receiving them. Let us remember our sisters and brothers in East Africa in our prayers.
Small plane to airstrip in Dadaab, a tiny, broken-down town in northeast Kenya. Blinding clouds of dust billow from the car in front of us as we make our way to our local partner’s compound. Dust instantly coats everything we carry. The same dust has swallowed up any hope of growing crops or raising livestock across the border in Somalia, where the drought and famine are worst.
Drive to the UN registration center, where hundreds of Somali refugees are bused in daily from several surrounding camps. At the center, they wait for hours to be processed in a big tent filled with screaming children and fingerprint scanners. The United Nations is trying, but can’t keep up with the influx.
We talk to Momina, a 22-year-old woman whose two children wear sack-like shirts and cling to her nervously. After their two dozen goats and cows died, they walked 20 days to get here.
6:30 a.m.: Wake up early in our refugee-issue tents. So many aid workers are at the camps now that there’s not room enough for us either. Unlike the refugees trudging here, we have bottled water and a few changes of clothes. We’re also not dangerously thin.
8 a.m.: Convoy from aid worker compound to the refugee camps. It’s dicey territory — empty, open brush land where armed bandits have been known to attack — so groups of cars drive the five miles together. We drive fast, the dust pluming around our vehicles.
We pass miles and miles of refugee “houses,” often sticks shaped into a dome and covered with scraps of cloth or plastic.
10 a.m.: Visit the malnutrition ward of one camp’s hospital. Haggard mothers sit with motionless children in their laps. Strapped to the children’s foreheads are IV tubes. Staff pull layers of clothes more tightly around the children. When you’re starving, you don’t have enough flesh to keep you warm; some children die of hypothermia.
Wailing children are common in most refugee areas I’ve seen, but this ward is silent.
11 a.m.: I talk to Ambiyo, whose husband had dozens of cows and goats before the drought. Her husband is gone, so she sold the last living goats to have money for the 20-day walk to Kenya. Like all of the refugees, she joined a group of families; given the armed robbers and drought-starved lions no one would make the trip alone. Sometimes she carried her 4-year-old piggyback while her baby was bound to her chest with a sarong. Her other two children walked.
Bandits attacked the group and stole her clothes, but didn’t harm her, Ambiyo says.
2 p.m.: Drive to the “outskirts,” an enormous stretch of land adjoining the official camp. It’s not supposed to be a refugee camp, but it’s dotted with thousands of the domed huts. People use cardboard, plastic bags or anything they can to cobble together shelter.
There are water stands every mile or so set up by different charities. The taps work at certain times of the day, so people gather in advance with yellow, two-gallon containers. There’s a tense scene at one stand — two young men aren’t fighting, but look like they could. “Maybe one of them cut in line,” says our local partner. Another explains: “The new arrivals come and have a mentality of war. They think they have to fight for anything they need. We tell them, ‘No machetes when you’re in line for water.'”
9 a.m.: Back in the overflow area of one camp, I talk to Farheya, mother of two. Many of the refugees I’ve spoken to so far left Somalia solely because of the drought and famine. Farheya is one of those who faced war as well as hunger.
“People were being killed,” she says. “They didn’t do anything but they were still killed.”
Her husband was also gone — a lot of the women here show up with their children and it’s unclear what happened to their spouses. Drafted into the war? Killed? Run off? Staying in Somalia to save what little property they have?
Farheya had one child and was pregnant with her second when she started the journey with about two dozen others. “I was so hungry when I was walking,” she says. Armed bandits descended and raped most of the women in her group; “they didn’t rape me because I was so pregnant.” The robbers took their clothes and the group kept walking, naked. “Later, some people threw us clothes.” Nearly three months after she started, Farheya made it to the Dadaab camps, and gave birth.
5 p.m.: We join the convoy back to the compound, but halfway down the arid strip of road our vehicle starts clunking oddly. We pull over to repair the flat tire while two guards stand nearby. Having spent all day hearing about bandits who appear in just such deserted conditions, I shift uneasily from sneaker to sneaker. The tire takes five long minutes to change.
Noon: Four days have passed and we haven’t even seen all the refugee camps here.
The place was meant for about 90,000 people; thousands arrive each week, and now more than 350,000 are here. And the camps are just one piece of a huge, terrible puzzle. My colleagues in other parts of Kenya, and in other sections of East Africa, keep working on drought mitigation programs, water programs, agriculture programs… anything to make sure people can feed themselves when the rain won’t come.
Here at the Dadaab camps, the flow of people doesn’t stop. One CRS staffer went far afield to assess the water system of the people living around the camps. In the distance he saw a new group moving towards the camps, thin, confused-looking, with bundles stacked on a donkey cart and dust caking their feet. Some of them looked in one direction and some in another, uncertain which way to go.
A woman on our partner’s staff has worked with refugees for years and knows that look. “They’ve arrived,” she says, “but they’re still lost.”