Here comes the bus, at last. It first appears as a distant dust cloud in the vast flatness of this place, but as it gets closer to the 73 people who have been waiting in the thin shade of some thorn trees since early morning, who have been waiting really for 10 years, it solidifies into one of the most blessed sights of their lives.
The bus is dirty and showing its age. But what they see when it comes to a stop is a grill painted with a design of yellow wings. And look at the windshield, decorated with stars. And look above the windshield, at the words where the destination typically would be. "United States," it could say, since that's where these people are going. "Allah Akbar" is what it does say, and as the people move forward, who among them would not say on this day that God is great? How else to explain why they -- of 130,000 refugees here -- were chosen for the bus?
A baby with withered legs. A boy with a cloudy eye. A girl with circular scars arcing across her forehead. Hot, skinny, hungry parents with hot, skinny, hungry children. Until this morning, all were official residents of the three Dadaab refugee camps near the Kenya-Somalia border, which came into existence when Somalia disintegrated into civil war in the early 1990s. Then, a few hours ago, they turned in their identification cards and were officially de-registered, and now the bus is the only place in the world where they have a recognized right to be. Starting now, on a day in late July, the bus is where they live.
Out of the hot dirt and up the steps they go, hurrying, pushing, abandoning the patience that has gotten them through 10 years of the equatorial heat, of dust storms, of assaults and rapes and killings, of scorpions in their bedding and hyenas in the nights, of charity that kept them alive and made them grateful and ashamed. At the end of the line: a woman carrying a jug of dirty water, and a young man who takes it from her and makes sure she is seated before he takes the seat next to her.
She is Isha Hassan Miney, 37. He is Mohamed Aweis Abdi, 17, her son. She is the one with a dead husband and two other children who died when they were babies. He is the one who, as the bus starts to move, raises his hand toward the window and waves.
Goodbye to the mud hut they lived in for the past five years and the tent they lived in for five years before that.
Goodbye to some of the people outside who are watching the bus and waving, too, the ones who, like Mohamed, are Somali Bantus, about 12,000 in all, who will also be leaving Dadaab over the next few months.
And goodbye to others outside the bus who won't be leaving Dadaab anytime soon, some 120,000 Somalis in all, lighter in skin, more angular in features, some of whom call the Bantus oji, which roughly translates to ignorant, and adoon, which roughly translates to slave. They are watching but not waving, and when Mohamed sees them he lowers his hand.
The trip this day is a short one, just far enough down the dirt road to reach an isolated compound that is surrounded by barbed wire and Kenyan police. This is where they will spend the night. In the morning, in the dark, they will leave for good with 370 other Bantus in a convoy of eight buses. Their destination is a place called Kakuma. They know little about it except that it's three days away. Sometime after that, they will be taken to the United States. They don't know much about that place, either. "I imagine it has firm doors," Mohamed says. The bus enters the compound. "My first bus ride," he says. His smile is all anticipation. "Tomorrow, our journey begins."
'This Is Real Stuff'
The anticipation of movement: That's why Mohamed is eager to go. Above all, movement is what refugees live for, because waiting to move -- typically for years, often for decades -- is the reality of their lives. Just as forces beyond their control caused them to become refugees, outsiders determine what will happen to them next. Often that means eventual repatriation back to the country from which they fled. But in 2 million cases over the past 25 years, that has meant being relocated to the United States.
This year was to be no different. The United States had said it would accept as many as 70,000 refugees in the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30.
Eight weeks before that deadline, however, only 20,000 of the 70,000 had made it, and the expectation was that the final figure won't be much higher. Even starker are the numbers involving Africa, whose 3 million refugees live in what are regarded as some of the worst conditions in the world. Though the United States said it would take 22,000 African refugees this year, the number as of the beginning of August was 1,617.
The reason is Sept. 11. Soon after the attacks, the U.S. resettlement program was shut down until new security measures could be put in place, and when the program resumed three months later, a new emphasis on security over humanitarian aid left thousands of refugees who had been approved for resettlement languishing in dangerous and squalid camps.
"It's disgusting," says Lavinia Limon, executive director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees. "Refugees are fleeing persecution, rape, war, imprisonment, dismemberment, torture -- you know, this is real stuff and people are fleeing for their lives, particularly in Africa. They know what terrorism is. They are victims of terrorism. And for us, right now, when we're fighting terrorism, to be turning our backs, belies what we're fighting for."
But Bush administration officials say the new procedures are necessary and won't be going away. That means newly mandated FBI background checks of potential resettlement cases. It means restrictions on the places U.S. immigration workers can conduct face-to-face interviews with refugees. It means limiting the number of refugees on any flight to the United States to no more than 35. And increased scrutiny is being applied to refugees who are males, especially young males, especially young males who are single and associated with any of two dozen largely Muslim countries with terrorist links, including Somalia.
All of which makes the journey of the Somali Bantus -- a total of 11,860 by the time the transfers to Kakuma are completed later this year -- a singular event since Sept. 11.
If they do reach the United States, they will be among the largest groups of refugees ever to receive blanket permission for resettlement. Their trip from Dadaab to Kakuma, which is being coordinated by the International Organization for Migration, and paid for by the United States, has an initial budget of $2.7 million. The United States is also ultimately responsible for the decision to transfer the Bantus to Kakuma. Because of their proximity to Somalia, and its alleged terrorist links, the Dadaab camps are considered too dangerous for U.S. immigration workers. An alternative plan to build a new, secure camp near Dadaab for the Bantus would have cost $1.4 million more than transporting the Bantus to the other side of Kenya.
Which will be filled with people who file aboard obediently, knowing almost nothing about the reasons they're leaving Dadaab, or what the next three days of their lives will be like.
"I think it will look different," Mohamed guesses. "I was told there are mountains. There are cold places. People will be shivering. The animals will be different. The form of the land will change. There will be forests. The trees will change. The leaves will look green. Some of the trees will have thorns, but the thorns will be a bit green, too."
Mohamed is male. He is young. He is single. He is Muslim. He is from Somalia.
He has no idea what the implications of that could be in the place where he will eventually resettle.
What he does know: why, as his trip begins, he and the other 72 people are given plastic bags as they board the bus.
"In case of vomit," he explains.
Seventy-three people, 55 seats.
And so children who have never worn diapers are put in Pampers and lifted onto laps, a trash can is placed in the aisle to be used by people who for 10 years have thrown their garbage into pits covered with scavenger birds, and in this way the rolling village of Allah Akbar takes off just before first light.
This time around, no one is waving or watching. There is a brief glimpse of refugees lining up in the distance for firewood distribution. But soon the convoy is in the midst of an uninhabited, endlessly flat, endlessly repetitive landscape of sky, clouds, thorn trees, weeds, sand, blue, white, brown, brown, brown.
The bus is quiet.
The noise is tires in sand.
The sand flies up and comes in the wide-open windows.
Dawn, and it's already hot.
"I don't think I will remember this place," says Mohamed, who doesn't remember the places that preceded it, either.
There was a place in southern Somalia called Jilib, where he was born. He remembers the name, but that's all. He vaguely remembers living on a farm near the Jubba River, which is where a subgroup of Bantus, known as Mushunguli, settled after being brought to Somalia as slaves in the 1800s from Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania. He remembers the shape and feel of his father, a farmer whose name was Aweis Abdi, and he remembers the night his father died in his sleep, hungry and without undue fuss. The death came several months after the one event he does remember with clarity, his distillation of an entire childhood:
"We used to cut trees to sell in the market," Mohamed says. "Father used to cut, mother used to pull the branches from the tree. There was one tree, the branches were very bent, and I tried to pass underneath on a narrow path, and I raised my head too soon, and a thorn went in my head and broke off and a piece of it remained." He separates his right thumb and finger by two inches. "The thorn was a bit long," he continues. "I felt pain. I cried. I told them, but everybody was busy at that time, and there was no proper hospital for medical treatment, so we just left it like that. They kept on working, and it kept on paining."
He was 6 when that happened, and then he was 7, and his father was dead, and Somalia's civil war came to the Juba River valley, and then came the day he and his mother began walking west.
"There was no proper sleep" is what he remembers about that walk.
His mother, though, remembers much more, and as the Allah Akbar continues on its way, she tells him that she decided to leave their farm when Somali fighters killed a neighbor, and that they walked west because that was the way everyone else was walking, and that they existed on bits of bread, and that they slept by the side of the road, and that when they awakened they would fit themselves back into the column of people, which seemed to be never-ending no matter if it was night or day. "You were very hungry and weak," she tells Mohamed, who says he doesn't remember that, or how long the walk lasted. "Ten days," she says, and then describes what happened when they reached the border, that one final step brought them into a new world of rice and meat and water and biscuits, handed to them by workers for the United Nations' refugee agency, who welcomed them to Kenya and assured them there was a safe place for them to go.
And now Mohamed does remember something: "They gave me an injection."
And Isha remembers: "I was happy."
That was 1992. They were transported by truck to Dadaab, assigned to a camp called Dagahaley and given a tent. Ten years later, Isha has turned into a woman who almost never smiles and Mohamed is saying, not with bitterness, just matter-of-factly, "There is no place I belong to."
He wipes dust from his eyes. He touches his head, a spot toward the back that is always tender and where hair doesn't grow. He looks out the window. An hour into the trip and the world is still flat, still blue, still white, still brown. A village of a few huts, now, and the faces watching the convoy go by are still lighter-skinned and more angular than Mohamed's, and so it continues until an hour and a half into the trip, when Isha sees something out the window she hasn't seen before.
"Those are ostriches," Mohamed tells her.
Two hours into the trip. The buses pull over. Eight doors open, and 443 people spread out in the weeds, all thoughts of privacy useless. The trash can, which has been filling up with diapers and neatly tied bags, is emptied, while several dozen men, including Mohamed, after using the sun to decide which way Mecca must be, press their faces into the sand and offer their first prayer of the day.
Three hours: The dirt road turns into choppy asphalt and for a few minutes everyone in the Allah Akbar stares out the windows as they pass buildings that are made of cement rather than mud, a crowded market, a few gas pumps, a building three stories tall. "I've not seen a town," Mohamed says, amazed. "This is my first time."
Five hours: "What is that?" Mohamed asks, looking toward the horizon. "Is that a mountain?"
Seven hours: In Dadaab, Mohamed would be finishing lunch about now, a piece of bread and a bowl of boiled corn, which is the same thing he would have for dinner, which year after year his mother prepared in the same pot balanced on three rocks surrounding some firewood. Instead, the convoy pulls off the road and comes to a stop between the scuffed goal posts of a ratty soccer field. This is where they will spend the night. They will be fed a plate of rice topped with a piece of meat and a banana. They will sleep on a covered cement patio and be uncomplaining about that, too.
First things first, though -- another prayer, this one aimed to the right of the mountain. Seven hours on the bus, and they have arrived in a place that doesn't look that different from where they started. But Mohamed thanks God anyway, and then goes in search of his mother, who is lying on a blanket spread over the cement. He sits next to her, says nothing, shuts his eyes and absently brings his hand up to his head again, running his fingers over the tender spot.
It's still in there.
"I think the Somali Bantus are the closest thing you will find to a people who are stateless," says Andrew Hopkins, a U.N. refugee resettlement officer.
"Particularly vulnerable," says Kenneth J. Menkhaus, a Somalia expert who teaches at Davidson College in North Carolina.
"Very submissive," says Rose Mwebi, an assistant U.N. resettlement officer. "They look intimidated, like they're afraid all the time."
All of which helps to explain why Isha's initial happiness at reaching Kenya disappeared when she reached Dadaab, where the Bantus were so sorely in the minority. As Menkhaus says, "There's definitely a class distinction within the refugee camp. If you're Bantu, you're on the bottom rung."
The day Mohamed and Isha were packing to leave Dadaab, another Bantu, Mohammed Abdullahi Hassan, was in one of the camp's hospitals after being attacked by a Somali who threw water in his face and then came at him with a metal rod. "You're an outcast," he said his attacker yelled at him before he passed out.
Meanwhile, in another part of the camp, Abdullahi Ali Ahmed, one of the Bantu leaders, said of the Somalis, "They don't see Bantus as human beings. They think Bantus are here to work for them."
Meanwhile, in the market area, where all the shops are owned by Somalis, a Somali named Mohamed Ahmed Mohamed said of the Bantus, "There's no discrimination against them," and a Somali named Mohamed Khalif Abdi said, "They are equal to Somalis" and a Somali named Mustafa Ibrahim said, "This is something they tell to be resettled, it's not the truth."
"No, no. The Somalis are just trying to frame things to block the process," said Gerald Kimalthi, a Kenyan policeman who has patrolled the camp for four years. "What the Bantus are saying, they are right. Whenever there is a small dispute between the Bantus and the Somalis, the Somalis come as a group and they beat the Bantus."
And meanwhile, continuing to pack, Mohamed said, "We're not equal. We're different. We're different from them because they're better than us. They're more educated. They're more civilized than us."
He packed his blanket. "The blanket is from the U.N." He packed his pillow. "The pillow, I made it myself. Some grass roots." He packed his Koran. "I've memorized some of it. But I don't understand it." He packed a few pieces of clothing, while Isha packed the same things she brought with her from Somalia in 1992, as well as two pots and two plates that she purchased with shillings she earned now and then by doing odd jobs for some of the Somali refugees.
"Washing the blankets for the Somalis, cleaning their areas, dusting their mattresses, even building houses," Mohamed said of the things his mother did while he was at school, studying English, math, geography and Islam. In this way the years went by. In 1994, Tanzania said it would take the Bantus, but that fell apart. In 1997, Mozambique said it would, but that fell apart, too. In 1999, the United States said it would, but various things have kept that from happening, including a corruption investigation at the U.N. refugee office in Nairobi, and, most recently, the attacks of Sept. 11.
Like others in Dadaab, Mohamed heard about the attacks on the radio and felt "very sorry," but his more pressing concerns had to do with his own day-to-day terrors. One day his mother was attacked and beaten when she ventured beyond the camp's perimeter to collect firewood; one night a hyena tried to push its way through his closed door; one day he got into a fight with a Somali in the market, and "I was about to defeat him but other people ran over and began slashing me and cleared me to the ground." Then came the announcement that the Bantus would be transferred to Kakuma, and some Somalis began taunting Mohamed. "Who will dig our toilets?" one said. "Why these people" asked another, "these people who look like gorillas?"
So, the bus.
"I'm eagerly waiting for it," Mohamed said -- but now, at 4 a.m., as Day Two of the trip gets underway, he finds himself wondering: Where does the rest of the world begin?
At dawn he finds out.
For two hours, the Allah Akbar has been pitching up and down in the darkness, suggesting a landscape no longer flat. But only when silhouettes begin to appear does Mohamed realize he is in a different place at last. There are hills on both sides of the bus. There is grass that bends as the convoy flies by. The sun comes up on people who look to be his age, with faces as round as his and skin as dark, walking in school uniforms along the side of the road.
There are buildings, too, and unlike the ones yesterday, they don't disappear after a few minutes. They keep increasing in numbers and in height, and now the convoy is passing through "Happy Valley Estates, Home to Those Who Believe in God and Neighborliness." Mohamed braces himself for a collision as the bus approaches an overpass and smiles with relief as the bus dips under it. Isha swivels her head when she sees two men walking in suits and ties, and now, just past a junkyard and a stadium, in the midst of huge apartment buildings with clothes drying on balconies and TV antennas on the roofs, the Allah Akbar comes to a sudden stop.
They have reached the outskirts of Nairobi, just in time for rush hour. The bus driver fiddles with the radio. "Look at all the vehicles," Mohamed says. "Twenty-three minutes to eight o'clock," says the voice of a deejay, and when she next announces the time, "Five past 8, afraid you're late," the bus is still stuck.
There are no complaints, though, even though the back of the bus stinks of vomit and several children have developed wet coughs -- just as there is no reaction when the Allah Akbar passes by the perfectly groomed, walled-in estate that is the residence of the U.S. ambassador. There is just watching, silent watching, as the bus navigates through the outskirts of Nairobi, starts a climb along the eastern edge of the Rift Valley, and keeps climbing.
Hour by hour the trip gets more grueling, and more riveting. Over 13 hours, there will be only one food break and two bathroom breaks. But there is also a climb into a cool, high-elevation pine forest, and a gully washer of a rainstorm, and a lightning bolt that will make Mohamed wince, and the sensation of coasting downhill at 75 mph, and finally, in the 12th hour, another climb into a stretch of cornfields that to the refugees, to whom corn is something that has come twice a month for 10 years in a charity sack, is the most astonishing sight of all.
You can see it in the face of Mohamed, who says, "Everywhere you look, just maize."
And Isha, who says, "There are no gaps. It's so close together."
Mile after mile, the fields continue, and as the light begins to fade, and Mohamed wraps himself in a blanket and experiences his first case of shivers, the convoy comes to a stop at another soccer field, this one green, with a choir practicing in the bleachers and a meal of rice and beef and potatoes and bread awaiting their arrival.
Day Two. The rest of the world. "Today has been very nice," Mohamed says.
And then comes night, when the convoy resumes with a long descent in the dark.
They are up at 3:30, fed bread and tea, and on their way just after 4. The first hint comes soon in the headlights, which illuminate grass that's becoming patchier and more brittle.
Down they continue.
Then comes a prayer stop just before 6 a.m., when the faithful step from the Allah Akbar into warming air and weeds that have stickers.
Down and down until sunrise.
The cornfields are gone. The towns are gone. The people are gone. The trees have shrunk. The sand has returned, as have the dust and the heat.
Windows are closed.
Windows are opened.
In comes the dust.
"Maybe by 12," a worker for the International Organization for Migration who is on the Allah Akbar says about when the convoy might reach Kakuma.
Five more hours, then, to a place Mohamed doesn't know, where he will remain for who knows how long until a trip someday to a place he can't imagine.
In theory, he and his mother could reach the United States as soon as early next year. That's when the transfers are supposed to begin. The route is set: a flight on a 50-seat prop plane from the dirt airstrip in Kakuma to Nairobi, a jet to Europe and a transfer to a U.S.-based airline, which is a requirement of the resettlement program, for the flight to America.
Because of the new limit of 35 refugees per plane, the last of the transfers won't occur until the end of 2004, assuming everything goes smoothly. That there are no terrorist attacks. That the annual ceiling for how many refugees the United States will take, to be set in September, has room for them. That immigration workers, who are to begin interviewing the Bantus in a few weeks, will be able to authenticate the identity of people who, in previous interviews, when asked basic questions such as their birth date, have answered: in the year of the big rains.
"It's going to be interesting," says Sasha Chanoff, of the International Organization for Migration, who will help oversee the Bantus' cultural orientation. "They have no exposure to crossing the street, to running hot and cold water, to supermarkets. They'll go to supermarkets and not be able to recognize any food."
So they will be taught about food, he says. They will be taught how to tell time, how to use calendars and alarm clocks, how important it is in America to be prompt. They will be given lessons in finances. They will be told about drivers' licenses, about seat belts, mass transit, tap water, flush toilets, hygiene, about the importance of asking questions rather than being submissive, about the American culture of independence and about how they will be expected to care for themselves as soon as they arrive.
Not that they won't get help. They will be met at the airport, given a free place to live for at least 30 days and shepherded through job searches and school enrollment. It says in a guidebook they will be given, "As a refugee, you may have lost everything, but in the United States you are offered a chance to start over and rebuild your life. Starting over may not be easy, but it can be done. Over a million refugees have come before you, and most have done well. You can succeed also."
But the Bantus are an exceptional case. There are at most a few thousand Bantus in the United States, which means there is no established community to absorb them. What about Isnino Farah, who sits near the rear of the Allah Akbar with her eight children, none of whom speaks English? What about the parents of the girl with the circular scars arcing across her forehead, who have to learn that in the United States it is unacceptable to burn holes in a large-headed baby to reduce the swelling? What about the fears of what awaits them? "Will we be free or will we be in camps?" wonders one. "Will Somalis be employed to act as a link between the authorities and the Bantus?" wonders another.
Finally, what about Americans who in these tense times think of refugees as potential terrorists, especially, perhaps, refugees who are young Muslim men from Somalia.
"We're in hardship," Mohamed says, confused by the possibility. "Do you think somebody who is in hardship can bring terrorism? Someone who cannot even get firewood for cooking? My father has died of hardship. There was no food for him. He died like that. So for people who are helping me to get anything I need, I like them."
The trees are just about gone now. The convoy has reached the northwest corner of Kenya. The land is as flat as Dadaab. The air is hotter. In the distance, to the right, are rows and rows of metal roofs, lit by the high sun, and three dust tornadoes, which seem to be sweeping toward them.
It is in this direction the Allah Akbar turns, off asphalt, onto dirt, and into Kakuma, population 67,277: 125 from Burundi, 311 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 22 from Eritrea, 2,074 from Ethiopia, 181 from Rwanda, 9,847 from Somalia, 54,424 from Sudan and 293 from Uganda.
Kakuma. Kenya's other refugee camp. Where refugees have been living for 10 years; where there have been assaults and rapes and killings; where just the past week fighting broke out over firewood and one person was shot to death; where at 12:30 p.m., after a trip of 800 miles, the Allah Akbar comes to a stop.
Towns. Mountains. Forests. Fields. Shivers.
And now, stepping off the Allah Akbar, no longer a resident of it, now a resident of this new place, Mohamed finds out what comes next.
He is grabbed by a man wearing rubber gloves and patted down for weapons.
He is sent to a line where he is given a glass of water and two pills.
He is sent to another line where he is given a new identification card.
He is sent to another line where he is given the number of the mud house to which he and Isha have been assigned.
And off he goes, he and Isha, into Kakuma, where after wandering around for an hour they at last find the hut that matches the number they've been given.
K-39. That's where they live now. He goes to the front door and tries to open it. It opens only a few inches. He pushes on it. A few inches more. Forces it. And steps inside to a place with rocks piled everywhere, and cracks in the walls wide enough for a scorpion to crawl through, and a back wall that looks as if it's buckling.
Clearly, a mistake has been made. He was given the wrong number when he registered and sent to a hut still under construction.
But he doesn't know this. How could he? No one is around to tell him, just other refugees who don't know any better, either, so he begins doing what any Bantu would do under the circumstances, even a Bantu who has spent three days on a bus and hasn't eaten in 12 hours and is thirsty and has a headache that never quite goes away and has no idea whether this place will be his for a day or a year or a decade: He begins clearing out rocks so he and his mother will have a place to wait for whatever comes next.
"No problem," Mohamed says. "No problem."