Druckversion – Hotel Somalia: Meeting Fate in World’s Largest Refugee Camp


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Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing into eastern Kenya to escape hunger, drought and Islamist militias in Somalia. Their new home is the world’s biggest refugee camp in Dadaab, which some of them will never leave. But the example of one man shows that it can still be a place of hope.

On the day the first planeload of supplies of a peanut-based paste lands in the Somali capital Mogadishu, a rickety white minibus known as a matatu sets out from the Somali village of Dhoobley, about 500 kilometers (312 miles) to the southwest. The vehicle, which is loaded with about 30 refugees, isn’t the first share taxi to leave the village, and it won’t be the last. Some say that there are hardly any matatus left in Somalia. Others say that soon there won’t be any Somalis left either, in this country plagued by wars and natural disasters.

The bus is loaded up in the shade of an acacia tree on the abandoned market square of Dhoobley, a village 20 kilometers from the Kenyan border in southern Somalia, a region controlled by radical Islamist militias. The passengers jostling for space in the bus include emaciated women dressed in colorful costumes, like Maria, 40, and Hawa, 32. It took them several days to walk to Dhoobley from their villages farther to the north, where they had abandoned their homes and left behind dead herds of cattle and goats. They walked in the searing heat, without water and food, and with hardly enough strength to continue. As they sit on the bus, flies crawl around their mouths and their children hang apathetically from their limp breasts.

Somali policemen carrying rusty AK-47 assault rifles, their olive-green uniforms hanging loosely on their thin frames, will accompany the women to the border with Kenya. Their job is to project the women from attacks by roving groups of bandits who tie the men to trees while they rape the women.

The bus is now rushing in a cloud of dust across the porous border, some distance away from the fat Kenyan immigration officer, who sits in a jeep. He is supposed to monitor cross-border traffic.

In Kenya, the bus continues along a dusty road, passing countless kilometers of bleak grasslands where wild animals roamed only a few years ago. They have since been replaced by a sea of tattered plastic bags. The earth is dark red, and even at dusk, when the refugees arrive at their destination, it is still emitting warmth from the day’s heat. The skeletons of cows, buffalo and camels that died of thirst line the road, producing a terrible stench.

The Only Refuge

The women are fleeing from what is probably the most devastating drought to strike the Horn of Africa in 60 years. They hope to build a future in peace in neighboring Kenya. But for new arrivals like 17-year-old Deka from the Somali port city of Kismayo, this peace remains elusive. For young men like Ahmed, who grew up in the camp and knows nothing else, living in exile became everyday reality a long time ago. And for Somalia’s former defense minister, a future no longer exists. The camp was the only refuge still available to him.

This unlikely place, the largest refugee camp in the world, is called Dadaab. It is an enormous artificial city consisting of individual settlements of tent camps, barracks, mud huts and red stone houses that have grown together. The camp was originally built to accommodate 90,000 people in the early 1990s, when a civil war erupted in Somalia and the first Somalis fled the country in droves. Now, in early July, after two years in which not a single drop of monsoon rain has fallen in the region, more than 11 million East Africans are faced with famine. The camp is already home to 400,000 Somalis, with another 1,300 arriving every day. The United Nations estimates there will be half a million people in Dadaab by the end of the year.

For the last two months Ahmed Hussein Abdullai, 28, has had a recurring sense of déjà-vu, as he sees events unfolding that conjure up memories of his own torturous ordeal. It breaks his heart, he says, to witness the suffering of these new arrivals. When he sees the dying children being carried around on their mothers’ backs, and sees new graves consisting of small mounds of red earth constantly appearing on the cemetery in front of his house, protected by thorn bushes in accordance with the traditions of Somali herders, he is reminded of his experiences when he left Somalia. Things are just as they were back then, he says. Nothing has changed.

‘Your Success Is Our Concern’

Abdullai was nine when he came to Dadaab. It was in 1992, just months after the civil war had erupted in the capital Mogadishu. Back then Dadaab had hardly any “mzungus,” as the people here refer to the whites with their cargo pants, satellite dishes and all-wheel drive Jeeps, who provided them with donations from around the world. Back then the refugees were assigned to a tent and told to learn two languages, Swahili and English, if they hoped to get along in their new home.

Today Abdullai is a successful man, a biology and chemistry teacher at a middle school in the Ifo camp, one of the three camp units at Dadaab. He is also the first bookseller in the camp. His shop is called “Iftin,” which translates as “light.” His shop even has a motto, which he wrote by hand on the shop sign: “Your success is our concern.”

For a refugee who has no papers, will never again be allowed to leave the camp and is unable to get a work permit in Kenya, Abdullai has done pretty well for himself. A friendly, intelligent man with an ironed shirt and a goatee, he is a role model for the new arrivals. He says: “Being a refugee is a challenge. Those who make something of it, who go to school and university, can change their country — even if it’s from exile.”

Abdullai still lives in the same place where his father once pitched a tent for him and his five siblings, in parcel B15. Today two houses of cow dung and red earth stand on a neatly swept plot of land on the parcel.

No Intention to Return Home

He recently became a father, and he has also completed a training program to become a conflict-resolution teacher. His job is to teach children about peace, and to set an example of what makes a good leader. The lessons were too theoretical for his taste, says Abdullai, who says he prefers hands-on teaching instead of lecturing. But he is also strict with his students, making sure that they actually learn something. He was just elected president of the Ifo youth organization, which finds jobs for high-school graduates and helps them fill out applications for scholarship programs in Canada.

After school is over in the afternoon, Abdullai can always be found in his bookstore. The shop quickly fills up with schoolchildren in yellow uniforms, their veiled mothers with their henna tattoos, the chapatti baker and the tea merchant. Everyone is talking about the prices of tea, milk and gasoline, which recently doubled. Shortly before closing up the shop, Abdullai presses his black Grundig transistor radio to his ear, listens to the BBC news and reports on the airlift into Mogadishu. They discuss the future of the Horn of Africa, but as concerned as they are about Somalia, it also seems as if these refugees had left their country behind long ago, and that none of them ever intends to return home.

Abdullai’s most loyal customer is a man in a baggy suit who rarely buys anything. He comes there every day, and stands in the stuffy shop between schoolbooks and maps of Africa. His name is Adan Ahmed Abdi, he is 61, and he is the former defense minister of Somalia. He too arrived in Dadaab with nothing, after fleeing across the border in a matatu on an April day four years ago, a short time after one of the countless transitional governments had driven him out of office and out of his home.

The former minister and the bookseller have become friends in the diaspora. And while the bookseller looks confidently to the future, the former defense minister has nothing left but memories. Abdi is a failed politician. He tried to save his country, and yet he never believed for a moment that he could change anything at all.

‘My Country Is Ill’

He leads us from Abdullai’s bookshop across the market to his hut. “Never could I have imagined that I would end up in this hellhole of a camp,” he says. Abdi, who was a colonel in the Somali military, serves tea sitting on bamboo mats and tells his son to fetch his old Samsonite suitcase from the hut. He pulls out his diplomatic passport and shows us photos of meetings with other cabinet ministers, photos that depict Abdi with his counterparts from Ghana, Congo, Niger and Nigeria. He pulls out a gold Swiss watch that a fellow colonel gave him in 2004: Moammar Gadhafi, whose image is engraved into the face of the watch.

The ex-minister speaks very quietly. He is fluent in Italian, the language of Somalia’s former colonial rulers. He was trained at a military base near Bologna and rose up through the ranks of the Somali military, becoming an expert in missile defense systems. He was eventually promoted to colonel and named defense minister under former President Abdiqasim Salad Hassan. When Hassan resigned in 2004, says Abdi, he suddenly found himself out of favor with the president’s successors and the increasingly powerful Islamist al-Shabab militias, the true rulers of present-day Somalia.

He lost his belongings and was forced to look on as his fellow soldiers were shot dead in broad daylight. The Islamists cut off the hands of thieves, prohibited people from importing potatoes from Kenya and forced women to wear veils.

Abdi fled Somalia four years ago, after realizing that it was his only choice. Hardly anyone knows about his past in the Dadaab camp, where the bookseller is his only friend.

The minister will die here. He cannot return to Somalia, but he can’t become a Kenyan citizen, either. “There is no hope,” he says with a sigh, blowing into his tea. “My country is ill. The fighting between the clans, the pirates’ reign of terror, the Islamist radicals — and now the famine. It never ends.”

A Prison for Eternity

Dadaab is a prison for eternity, an improvised home for members of Somalia’s five ruling clans, which are fighting each other at home, and a refuge for impoverished farmers and Muslims terrified of the Islamists, and for those who have long considered themselves Kenyans.

Every day the new arrivals stand in front of the three registration offices. They press their fingers onto inkpads, wait for passport photos and beg for the food ration cards that entitle them to a warm meal once a day. Some also beg to be accepted into one of the infirmaries, where the hopeless cases usually end up, the malnourished children with dark eye sockets and bones as fragile as glass.

There are currently 36 children under three years of age connected to ventilators at the Ifo camp, which lies in the middle between the two other camps. According to a Kenyan doctor working for the German development organization GIZ, it’s possible that only two-thirds will survive the next night.

Long-term residents, who have long been living in huts and red stone houses divided into numbered blocks, walk around markets and narrow streets with megaphones in their hands, asking for help for the new arrivals, and collecting clothing, shoes and mosquito nets. But this show of solidarity is deceptive. Soon the new arrivals will begin arguing with the more established Somalis over pastureland, work and the goodwill of the aid organizations. Life is hard at Hotel Somalia in eastern Kenya, a reflection of the conditions on the Horn of Africa.

‘Run Away if You Dare!’

Deka, a 17-year-old girl with a round face, can’t manage to shake off the old, sick Somalia either.

An orphan, she reached the camp on foot, so exhausted by the end of her trip that she could barely crawl on all fours. She arrived four months ago. For the last two months, Kenyan female aid workers have been trying to convince her not to see herself as a victim, but as a mother who has to learn to love the child growing in her womb.

Wearing a grey chador, she sits in the sheltered inner courtyard of an aid organization for children who crossed the border into Kenya alone and unprotected. Flies crawl across her face, but she makes no effort to brush them aside. She is still stunned by the memory of the night she was attacked.

They might have been soldiers, or members of the al-Shabab militias or marauding gangs of criminals. Deka isn’t sure who they were, because it was pitch-black. “There were six men,” she says. “They were carrying weapons.”

The rape lasted half the night. The men took turns, and they beat and berated the girl, shouting: “Run away if you dare!”

When they had finished raping her, they left her lying naked by the side of the road. From there, she made her way to the house of an aunt who was already living in Dadaab. When she missed her fourth period, the aunt took her to the camp infirmary. The moment the doctor told her that she was pregnant was the worst moment of her life, says Deka, even worse than the night by the side of the road. Her aunt threw her out of her hut.

Another Outcast

In a few days, when the first of Somalia’s starving refugees have been saved by a peanut-based paste from the West, when the world has turned its attention back to the euro crisis and America’s debt problems, Deka will give birth to her child — her bastard child, an infant outcast in a camp full of outcasts.

She hopes it will be a daughter, and if it is, she will name her Ian. It’s an old Somali name, she says, and she likes the way it sounds.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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