Twice in her 20 years, Halima has been raped. The first time was in the chaos of Somalia, by the two men who beat her father to death with the butts of their guns, then attacked her. She was 10 years old.

The second rape came in May, in this place that is supposed to be a refuge. Three armed men found Halima -- her first name -- gathering firewood near one of the three U.N. refugee camps here. After taking turns assaulting her, they kicked her in the back and barked, "Go home."

"We came for protection," Halima said. "I don't feel we have protection."

Three thousand miles from the mountain valleys where NATO is preparing to marshal 50,000 troops around the world's best-known refugees, an appalling reality has overwhelmed those who fled the last crisis that brought the international community running.

The U.N. camps straddling the equator here sprang up to absorb the exodus from Somalia when that country exploded in anarchy and famine. Eight years later, camp director W. Collins Asare summarizes the frequently terrifying existence of the remaining refugees by quoting from an unpublished study: Sexual assaults occur 75 times more often than would be expected in a community of 100,000, the approximate combined population of the Ifo, Hagadera and Dagahaley camps.

Far from safe havens, the camps are so dangerous that aid workers venture into them only with armed escorts. And if the plight of ethnic Albanians has reintroduced the word "refugee" to discourse around the world, no overflow of compassion has reached the dusty Somali settlements here.

"I cannot tell you for a fact that the contributions to Kosovo have affected the contributions to the rest," said Michel Gabaudon, chief fund-raiser for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, who was in Dadaab last week. But donations to existing operations have "stagnated" since the outpouring for the Balkans, Gabaudon reported, and "I have had donors say, `Where can you make cuts?' "

"If funds are cut," he added, "your bottom line is water and food."

In that climate of cutbacks, money is about to run out for the only measure that has reduced sexual assault around the Dadaab camps.

For the last 11 months, a modest grant from the United States has provided bundled firewood to families, allowing women to make fewer scavenging trips to the bush, where the overwhelming majority of rapes occur. But the grant runs out in June, and officials with the UNHCR said they do not have money to continue it.

As a result, refugees and officials agree, rapes once again will skyrocket as women and girls return to the bush.

The Dadaab camps share all the burdens of "temporary" settlements that take root over years: cholera and other diseases born of overcrowding, friction with the host country, children growing up without schools.

But the level of violence here is unheard of, according to numerous aid workers and agency officials. Kenyan police have nominal responsibility for camp security, but even with financial assistance from the UNHCR they make no pretense of pursuing more than their own survival in a barren region that has been insecure since before the country's independence.

After 6 p.m., when aid workers button themselves into their compounds, the sound of gunfire echoes through the camps "like classical music," one refugee said. Earlier this year, police found the corpses of six Somali males lashed to trees.

"We cannot go back to our homes, and life in the refugee camps is getting worse and worse," said Bashir Abdullahi Arte, a resident of the Ifo camp, where an arsonist had the day before burned down a row of makeshift shops in the central market. "We do not believe the international community has forgotten us, because they are feeding us on a daily basis. They have other problems to address. But I have problems of my own."

Chief among them is the rape of wives and daughters, said Abdullahi Sheik Abdi. Last year 164 rapes were reported at the Dadaab camps -- a highly conservative number, given the disincentives for a Somali woman to acknowledge an attack. If she is married, her husband can divorce her. If she is single, she will be ostracized: a Somali man will marry only a virgin.

Refugees International, a Washington advocacy group, last week reported that one-fourth of women at a refugee camp in Tanzania reported suffering rape or "extreme sexual harassment."

"My own wife, when she went into the woods to collect firewood, was mistreated," said Abdi, at the Ifo camp.

Why wasn't he gathering the wood instead?

"According to our culture, it is the work of the women to go to the forest," Arte replied. A man will lead a donkey cart to gather wood to sell. But gathering firewood remains women's work -- despite the rapes.

Confronted with that reality, a congressional staff delegation on an August 1997 visit asked what could be done. A UNHCR official replied that $1.5 million would buy firewood for the camp for a year. When the delegation returned to Washington, the money was arranged through an earmarked contribution from State Department discretionary funds.

The estimate turned out to be low. Given the limits of the local environment -- thorn scrub and sand -- and the cost of trucking firewood from more heavily wooded areas, the grant ended up covering only about a third of the camps' firewood needs. Even so, the practical effect has been dramatic. The first three months of this year brought only 16 reports of rape, down from 72 in the same period of 1998.

Now, with the money nearly depleted, Kevin Richardson, who oversees refugee issues at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, said he was "hoping a positive decision will be made before the program ends."

The last of the firewood lies stacked behind barbed wire in the camps. Several Somali women said they managed to stretch their monthly allotment of three meager bundles beyond what the United Nations expects. But it is never enough.

"After 14 days, you have to go to the bush," said a woman named Halimo.

So it was that on May 15, Halimo, 40, woke feeling queasy about the day ahead. At noon she ventured with three other women past the thorn fence that surrounds the camp. They had gone barely a half-mile before three armed men confronted them.

Halimo said the man who raped her looked to be about 70, judging by the part of his face his mask did not cover. Afterward he kicked her, tearing the soft skin of her thigh.

"People say I was raped. They talk about me," she said. "But I don't mind because what happened to me might happen to them tomorrow."

CAPTION: Women distribute firewood to refugees on behalf of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Those who gather firewood out in the bush risk the possibility of rape.

CAPTION: A Somali woman, 22, left, speaks at a counseling session. She was assaulted while collecting firewood and prosecuted her attacker.