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Somalis are desperate for a new life, but refugees face a dangerous road

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 26, 2010; 1:44 AM

GALKAYO, SOMALIA -- Deka Mohamed Idou sat under a tree, exhausted after a grueling six-day journey. She touched her belly, yearning for her unborn child to kick.

This is why she took the long, bumpy road out of Mogadishu: War. A missing husband and three missing children. A shattered house.

This is why she's here in this wind-swept no man's land between Somalia and Djibouti: Peace. Work. An education for her two other children. She can't see what awaits them. Perhaps sanctuary. Perhaps more suffering. But she's certain of one thing.

"I will deliver my baby in a place without gunfire," she said.

For Somalis, the road out of Mogadishu is a last resort. Those traveling on it have fled homes abruptly with terrified children, and crossed a wilderness of thieves, armed Islamists and marauding tribesmen. Many have been robbed, beaten, raped, even killed.

The situation in Mogadishu has become so bad that nearly 300,000 Somalis have made their way out this year, swelling the ranks of what is, after Iraq and Afghanistan, the third-largest refugee population from any country in the world. Most are women and children. The men who have survived have stayed behind to protect their homes, or they went ahead. Some have vanished in the chaos. Others are fighting.

The road, and the places along it, is the most visible evidence of a population still disintegrating, amid hopelessness and death, two decades after the collapse of Siad Barre's government plunged Somalia into an endless civil war.

Today, al-Shabab, a militia linked to al-Qaeda, controls large chunks of the Muslim country and seeks to overthrow the fragile U.S.-backed government. The militia's Taliban-like decrees and recruitment of children provide more reasons for Somalis to flee.

They travel north, often to places they have only imagined, arriving hungry and desperate. They join the hundreds of thousands who have fled since 1991, leaving behind a city that once had 2.5 million people.

Many remain too poor to flee. The ones with some means head for camps in Somali towns like Galkayo, Bossaso and Hargeisa, searching for peace and support. The ones with a few dollars more head for foreign lands - Djibouti, Yemen, Saudi Arabia - searching for a new life.

Those who succeed enter a world where they can be deported at any moment, where they are increasingly viewed as a security threat. Those who fail, and most do, are trapped in a humanitarian limbo, resigned to hardship, dependency and a broken life.

Or they die.

"They travel from one hell to another hell," said Ahmed Abdullahi, a U.N. refugee protection officer in Galkayo, 470 miles northwest of Mogadishu and often the first stop on the journey toward Djibouti and Yemen.

These are the stories of women who have taken this road, from the places they end up.

Galkayo

Six miles north of Galkayo, in a place called Halabokhad, 473 families are stuck in a makeshift settlement. The landscape is hot, dusty, bleak as their lives.

They live in round, cramped tents made from clothing and straw. They become isolated, unable to afford transportation to town.

Local officials are in charge of the settlement, which is supported by the United Nations. But there is only one borehole for water. Food and medical care are also scarce. Bone-thin children have yellowish skin, a sign of malnutrition in a country where one of every seven children dies before age 5. Women deliver babies inside their tents, sometimes without help.

This is where Amina Aden arrived three months ago with her exhausted children and nothing else. Her neighborhood was engulfed by war. Her husband was killed in crossfire a day before they fled their home carrying only what they could. A few miles outside Mogadishu, masked men stopped their minibus filled with refugees. The youngest women were ordered out. Aden heard them scream while they were gang-raped.

The men returned, and Aden braced herself. Her eight children surrounded her, crying, tugging at her clothes. The men looked at them, then grabbed another woman. "My children saved me," Aden, 35, recalled with a feeble smile.

After the rapes, the men delivered one final blow: They robbed all the passengers of their meager possessions. "They even took our sandals," Aden said.

Her children, ages 3 to 15, do not attend school. For breakfast, they drink tea. For lunch, they eat a bland porridge. There is never any dinner.

"I cannot even buy milk powder for my baby," said her neighbor, Kaltoom Abdi Ali, 37. She, too, fled Mogadishu with her seven children after mortar shells crashed into her house two months ago. In the mayhem, she was separated from her husband.

"I don't know where he is," Ali said.

Her 14-year-old and 16-year-old sons work 14 hours a day, washing cars, cleaning houses or collecting garbage for local residents. On most days, they earn $1. "I want my children to have an education, but if we leave here, life could be worse," Ali said. "No one cares about us."

For the most part, help is limited. After two decades of conflict, famine and drought, the United Nations has had difficulty raising funds to assist Somalis, U.N. refugee officials say. There's donor fatigue and, in a post-9/11 world, nations are preoccupied with terrorism, security and other global crises. The United States, Somalia's main donor, has provided more than $185 million to Somalia's government and an African Union peacekeeping force, but withheld humanitarian funding this year, fearing that al-Shabab was siphoning off foreign aid.

More than 2 million Somalis have sought haven in U.N.-supported refugee camps in neighboring countries and in settlements in nearly every region of Somalia. The conflict has significantly blocked the ability of U.N. and humanitarian agencies to deliver aid to south and central Somalia, which are under al-Shabab's control.

Here, and in other settlements around Galkayo, women fear the night.

Two weeks ago, three masked gunmen entered Asha Muse's tent. In front of her four children, they beat her and her niece, Muna. The men tore the women's clothes off and took turns raping them for two hours. One attacker stabbed Muna in the thigh with a knife.

Another turned to Ali's son.

"If you make a sound, we will kill you," Muse recalled him saying.

Before they left, the men stole $85 and some clothes.

"Everybody rapes women. The soldiers, the militias, everybody," said Hawa Aden Mohammed, an activist who runs a women's shelter in Galkayo where victims of rape and other gender-based violence seek shelter.

Muse and her niece did not inform the police or aid workers. Muse has stopped collecting garbage, fearing her attackers will spot her. Her neighbors, who helplessly listened to their screams, look at her sympathetically.

"We can't go back to Mogadishu. We can't afford to leave here. We know we will get raped again," said Muse, her tears filling her eyes. "But there's nothing we can do."

Bossaso

They arrive in this coastal town, filled with pirates and smugglers, with dreams of sailing to Yemen.

A few months ago, as the war edged closer to his house, Ali Osman Ado took his pregnant wife and five children out of Mogadishu. A trader, he had saved enough money to move them to Bossaso - $135 from Mogadishu - and to pay smugglers to take him to Yemen, then Saudi Arabia.

"He told me when I get there, I will find a better life. I will come for you and the children," recalled Hassina Abubaker, 30, two months pregnant at the time.

He didn't know that Yemeni authorities, fearing that al-Shabab militants could infiltrate and join al-Qaeda's Yemen branch, were cracking down on Somali refugees, his wife said. He didn't know that Saudi Arabia had sent more than 9,000 Somalis back to Mogadishu. He didn't know the smugglers would be ruthless.

Three days after he left, his friends called her from Yemen.

"The ship was overcrowded. The crew started to throw people off the boat to make it more stable," said Abubaker, staring listlessly at the dirt floor of her tent. "My husband was one of them."

Over the past three years, 1,066 migrants died or went missing - they were in boats that capsized or they were killed by smugglers, according to U.N. officials.

In another tent, Fatima Ali Omar held her baby. When he turns 1, she plans to go to Yemen because she heard they "treat refugees well." Eventually, she wants to be smuggled into Saudi Arabia to work as a maid. She knows that women have been raped along the way. She knows that many are forced into prostitution. She knows that if she complains, she will be deported.

"Nothing matters as long as I find a good life at the end of the journey," Omar said. "I will forget I was raped."

Hargeisa

This is the capital of the Other Somalia, a place barely touched by war, where gunfire is seldom heard. Known as Somaliland, this region broke away from Somalia in 1991 and today has its own elected, functioning government. The streets are bustling; new construction rises from nearly every corner.

Fatima Ahmed Noor fled here from Mogadishu after al-Shabab tried to recruit two of her nine children, after the war drove her husband insane and he separated from the family.

She has found anything but peace. The clans that rule Somaliland look at her with suspicion and disdain because she is from southern Somalia, where al-Shabab rules. Somaliland considers itself an independent country; the world does not recognize it as such. Authorities treat Somalis like Noor as foreigners. She and her children live in a refugee settlement and have little access to health care, education or jobs.

"They say, 'When we get recognition, we will also recognize you. You are displaced from another country, so you have to be treated as a foreigner,' " Noor said. "Everyone from Mogadishu is in the same condition."

She and her children earn $3 a day washing clothes, if they are fortunate.

As she spoke to this reporter, a community leader came over and glared at Noor. "I want to listen to what you are saying," she said harshly. She is among those who hurl verbal insults at Noor and her children.

What makes Noor equal to the other women in the settlement is this: "Rape is very common here," Noor said. "There is no discrimination."

Along the Djibouti border

Six days ago, Deka Mohamed Idou was in a different world. She had a house, a family. She had somehow survived 20 years of civil war in the capital.

Then, in a blur, her life fell apart. A clash between al-Shabab and the government forces erupted in her neighborhood. In the chaos, she was separated from her husband and three of their children. With their two other kids, she fled Mogadishu.

Along the way, she was robbed. She had to borrow $60, the cost of coming from Galkayo to this forlorn border. Two months pregnant, in a rattletrap minibus on a bumpy road, she constantly worried that she would lose her baby.

Now, on the edge of a foreign land, she worried as much about what she left behind as what lay ahead.

Idou looked down the road, at the Djiboutian border police, at the U.N. refugee workers preparing to register her, at the white gate that would open a new life for her family. Soon, they will be transported to Ali Addeh, a desert camp across the border in Djibouti.

"How will they treat us there?" Idou asked.

Ali Addeh camp, Djibouti

A bazooka shell struck Aisha Mohammed Abdi's house in Mogadishu, killing her uncle. She fled the capital with her husband and five children. Two died of hunger along the way. Days later, they arrived in Djibouti.

"I dreamed of a better life," she recalled.

That was 20 years ago.

She still lives in this camp, hundreds of miles from the capital, on a barren, oatmeal-colored landscape ringed by tan mountains. The Somalis call it "Tora Bora" because the region resembles Afghanistan. This is where Djibouti's government, worried that newcomers would take jobs away from its citizens, sends Somali and Ethiopian refugees.

The U.N. rations of wheat flour, oil, lentils and sugar are not enough to feed Abdi's family. There is also a shortage of water. Every day, Abdi walks six miles to fetch wood. She sells most of it; the rest is for cooking and heating their tent. There is no electricity.

Rapists are here, too. Two policemen guard the camp of 14,000 refugees. Darkness is the rapists' accomplice.

"Women can't identify their abusers," said Ayan Mohammed, a Djiboutian social worker. "Everyone is afraid."

Abdi once dreamed of being resettled to another country. No longer. Only 64 Somalis left for the United States and other Western countries this year, less than half of 1 percent of the Somali refugees living in Djibouti.

She once dreamed of returning home. No longer.

"It is worse in Mogadishu now than when I left," she said.

Today, she no longer dreams.

"I have been a refugee for 20 years," said Abdi. "Whether I stay longer here or leave for another place, only God knows. But I have lost all hope."

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