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For Somalis caught between Islamists and weak government, fleeing is only option

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Sayeed Ibrahim and his brother were accused of being thieves by al-Shabab, an Islamist movement in Somalia linked to al-Qaeda. The group then publicly amputated an arm and leg. Ibrahim now lives in Ifo, a refugee camp in northeastern Kenya.

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By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 17, 2010

IFO, KENYA -- Two Islamist militants delivered an ultimatum to Zahra Allawi's daughters: marry them or die. The men were from al-Shabab, a militia linked to al-Qaeda that is fighting Somalia's U.S.-backed government. The two girls were 14 and 16.

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Allawi said her neighbor in southeastern Somalia received the same command. But he swiftly married off his daughter to someone else. The next day, the fighters returned with a butcher's knife.

"They slaughtered him like a goat," she recalled.

Three hours later, she and her 10 children fled. After handing their life savings of $300 to a smuggler, they crossed into northeastern Kenya last month, joining tens of thousands of Somalis in this sprawling refugee settlement. They are the human fallout from Africa's most notorious failed state, haunted by unending conflict and a quiet U.S. counterterrorism campaign.

About 2 million Somalis, roughly one-fifth of the population, have sought refuge in other parts of their country or in neighboring countries, most of them since 2007, when the fighting intensified. Nearly 170,000 have fled this year alone, according to U.N. officials, arriving in desolate camps inside and outside Somalia with barely anything except the clothes on their backs.

Many are running from al-Shabab's radical dictates and increasing savagery, as well as fears of a major government offensive.

This article is based on more than 60 interviews conducted in Somali refugee communities in Kenya and Yemen. The refugees' stories of life under al-Shabab could not be independently verified, but community leaders, refugee officials and human rights groups as well as al-Shabab spokesmen gave similar accounts of recent events in Somalia.

Allawi had plenty of reasons to flee. Al-Shabab fighters, she said, once whipped her for not attending midday prayers at the mosque. Last month, she was forced to prove that the man she was walking with was her husband.

An al-Shabab commander also sought to recruit two of Allawi's sons, ages 10 and 13. Allawi begged him not to take them. In exchange, he forced her to buy three weapons for his force.

"If they could all afford to come, not a single person would remain in Somalia," said Allawi, 37, seated with her children on the reddish, sunbaked earth a day after they arrived. "There is no freedom in Somalia, only death."

Instability since 1991

War has gripped Somalia since 1991, when the collapse of President Mohamed Siad Barre's regime plunged the country into lawlessness and clan fighting. Two years later, mobs dragged the bodies of U.S. soldiers through Mogadishu, the capital, during a U.N. peacekeeping mission, an event later depicted in the movie "Black Hawk Down."

The country has vexed U.S. policymakers, who fear that Somalia could become the next Afghanistan. In December 2006, the George W. Bush administration indirectly backed an Ethiopian invasion to overthrow the Islamists, who had risen up against Somalia's secular warlords.


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