Page 2 of 3   <       >

A Radical Islamist Takeover Drives the Young From Somalia

Scenes from Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp, one of the world's largest and oldest facilities for displaced people, located on the border with Somalia. Refugees from Somalia's violent conflict sometimes wait months to be registered by camp officials, at which point they are eligible for food rations, vaccinations and other aid.

"Young people, our age mates, were joining [the Shabab] every day," Ibrahim said. "They would tell them to fight for your religion, fight for your land, and they'd also give them money -- they were difficult to resist."

It was morning in Dadaab, and Ibrahim was standing with his two friends, Mohamed Shuep, 25, and Hussein Hassan Adan, 16, in a huge, sweaty crowd -- the same sort of exhausted, frustrated crowd that gathers every day at the barbed-wire perimeter of the camp.

Their growing number is a testament to what Somalia has become: a place from which to escape.

Out of a population of about 9 million, more than 1 million people have fled their homes, preferring drought-stricken regions of the country to the crossfire of militias battling for control of Mogadishu and other areas. Attacks on aid workers -- most likely carried out by the Shabab, who equate them with foreign interference -- have made humanitarian assistance almost impossible to deliver.

Hundreds of thousands more people have abandoned the country altogether. At least 20,000 have taken their chances this year aboard rickety boats bound for Yemen, and many more have traveled on foot or in stifling smugglers' trucks that bring about 5,000 people to this camp each month.

Built in 1991 to accommodate 90,000 people fleeing Somalia's last civil war, Dadaab is now a sprawl of more than 220,000 refugees -- a desert limbo land of rounded stick huts and overburdened water taps emblematic of more than a decade of failed governments and peace initiatives.

Ibrahim and his friends arrived a few months back.

Like many young men, they left extended families behind and began their journeys alone, walking and hitchhiking toward Kenya. They became friends in the Somali border town of Dobley, where they worked in a restaurant and shared scraps of food and the shelter of a tree at night. Pooling their money, they eventually paid their way onto a smuggler's truck crowded with people and goats.

It took four nights and one shakedown by bandits to reach Dadaab.

It took about four months of waiting for the three young men to reach a pre-pre-registration area, where they were standing on a recent day, hands pressed on each other's shoulders.

"Sit! Sit!" an overwhelmed U.N. worker yelled at the crowd through a megaphone. "The first family size to be registered will be family size 4, then 3!"

Mostly, people here wait. They wait to be registered, for food, for their leaders to stop fighting so they can go home. A bus that comes and goes from here has the word "wait" painted on its side like an omen.

<       2        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company