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Somalia to Dadaab: The Journey from Hell

DOBLEY, Jul 15 2011 - The lorry sways slowly from side to side along a dirt track as it ambles towards its place of rest. The red straw bags, clothes and empty yellow water bottles tied to the rear end of the open cargo hold tower above the pensive faces peering over colourfully painted steel panels.

The lorry finally hisses to a halt in the shade of a vast Acacian.

We know the lorry is carrying people hoping to flee to Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp in northeastern Kenya, but it is only when the driver hops out of the cockpit and swings open the back latch that we realise there is an entire community inside.

“There are around 40 households inside this truck,” the driver tells us.

We count at least 40 adults and around 70 children, mostly infants, emerging from the vehicle. They look terrified and exhausted.

The Way Out

The lorry driver says he charged each adult $10 for the 400km journey from the Bualaay district and that they drove for 23 hours without stopping. It is a trip he has made six times in the past four months.

"The road is bumpy, people are extremely hungry, they get sick and so there is a lot vomiting and other things along the way that make it very, very uncomfortable," he says.

Twenty-year-old Medinah Abdi gave birth to her first child just one day before boarding the lorry. After disembarking she lies beside the lorry and breastfeeds the infant, caressing the baby's face with her fingertips.

With so much noise around, her silence seems to tell her story.

Burwaqo Norwo, a 25-year-old mother of six, appears a little more troubled than the new mother experiencing a moment of tenderness with her newborn. "For two days before we boarded the lorry we didn't have anything to eat," she says.

"And [once the journey began] it was bad. It was congested, with a lot of bad smells ... so many children, some urinating, some vomiting, and everyone was so hungry, on empty stomachs ... it was really a terrible journey."

Another passenger, 56-year-old Hussain Mohamed Ibrahim who is travelling with his two wives and nine children, lost all 40 of his cows because of the drought, which has been described as the worst to strike the region in six decades, and says he had no but choice to leave.

He sold his only camel to fund the journey.

He says he is just happy to be off the lorry.

This lorry load is but one of roughly 15 to 20 daily drop-offs in the town. Here, the families rest after the first half of their journey before finding a way to reach one of the camps across the border at Dadaab.

Welcome to Dobley, a small town just 1.5km inside Somalia, where thousands of Somalis make their last stop before leaving their country to become refugees across the border in Kenya.

Over the past month, around 20,000 have made their way to Dadaab, many of them through similar means.

Set up in 1991 to host 90,000 people fleeing war in Somalia, the three camps that make up the Dadaab complex are now home to more than 380,000 people. Between 40,000 and 60,000 are thought to be living outside the boundaries of the complex – existing as refugees beyond the current scope and control of the UN.

“They are desperate, hungry and wanted to escape to Kenya, so I brought them here,” explains the driver, who wished to remain anonymous out of fear of a backlash from al-Shabab. The group, which is trying to overthrow Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), has reportedly discouraged people from leaving the country.

Adnan Dahir Hassen, the district commissioner of Dobley, says the town is battling to deal with the influx.

“As you can see, there are just too many people coming in from all over southern Somalia … we try to give them security so they feel safe and we also try to welcome them by sharing whatever little we have with them,” he says softly as the cries of newly disembarked children punctuate the already tense ambience.

Hassen says that as the government representative in the city, it hurts to see Somalis leave, but to stop them would be to behave inhumanely.


“This is an unimaginable drought, something that has not been witnessed in decades,” says Abdi Nasir Serat, the TFG forces spokesperson for Somalia’s Lower Juba region, adding that the country’s ongoing civil war has only intensified the effects of the drought.

“The civil war on top of the drought has forced these people to run away, and part of this is an attempt to find more security for their lives,” Serat says.

Back in the camps of Dadaab, relief workers say that many refugees have cited threats from al-Shabab as a reason for leaving Somalia. Stories abound about the group intimidating farmers and kidnapping young boys who they then force to join their “army”.

This might explain why most of the arrivals are women and children. Young men are conspicuous by their absence, either manning the last of the livestock or fighting in the war.

Those who reach Dadaab are, despite the trauma of their journey and an arduous registration process that takes days to complete as procedures continually shift, in fact the lucky ones.

Norwo, the mother of six, and Ibrahim, the father of nine, have few expectations of the facilities at Dadaab. “We are so hungry, desperate and poor, with no idea where we are going … our problem is hunger and our closest [chance] seems like the refugee camp,” Norwo says.

And, as chaotic as the Dadaab complex is, if Norwo and Ibrahim are able to transport their families safely there in time to receive medical assistance for their malnourished children, they may just save them from death by starvation.

Dadaab is still their best bet because in Dobley, as in other parts of southern Somalia, there is no infrastructure to deal with the famine and little medical care to address the malnutrition. Dobley residents have to go to neighbouring Liboi in Kenya to access treatment.

Next Stop: Dobley

Dobley, with a population of around 15,000 people, remains under the watchful eye of 5,000 troops from the TFG, which just three months ago seized control of the town from al-Shabab. Al-Shabab had held the town since 2009.

"This exodus is happening [now] because the government took over," Adnan Dahir Hassen, the town's district commissioner, says without a hint of irony, though his point is honest and poignant.

"These people need food, water and medication, but we don't have much of that ... as they gain strength, they will travel for days from here [to Dadaab] ... and we don't stop them," he adds.

Hassen is right. The town is in no state to discourage Somalis from leaving. In fact, it is in disarray itself.

The local hospital, where al-Shabab once set up camp, is a scene from a war zone, ridden with bullet holes.

Other administrative buildings on the outskirts of town have parts of their roofs missing and gigantic holes in their walls - promulgating stories of heavy gun fights between TFG forces and al-Shabab.

The dusty streets around the market and central borehole bear witness to a town battling to clean up the mess of years of fighting; burnt-out machinery lies behind shrubs, rubbish is strewn all over the dry grass.

Giant Marabou stork vultures stand in throngs amid the squalor, patiently waiting to pounce on any low-life.

Dobley is feeling the strain of the drought just like the rest of central and southern Somalia, but the added stress of being the border town places immense pressure on its administrators. It is a sentiment shared in Liboi, the border town on the Kenyan side.

An elder from Liboi tells me that some households there were barely able to gather enough food to feed their families but nonetheless had to offer help to the throngs of refugees who invariably pitched up asking for water or a bite to eat.

"They are demanding ... and we understand, but it's always not easy," he says.

Somalia: A ‘black hole’

Dadaab might have captured the attention of the international community for the moment, but the situation inside Somalia remains a ‘black hole’ as far as the rest of the world is concerned.

As it stands, more than two million Somalis are affected by the drought while around a million are said to be internally displaced.

The fact that few relief agencies work inside the country – a result of the insecurity there, administrative hassles and the fact that al-Shabab asked them to leave – creates a self-fulfilling cycle.

With no international relief agencies luring the media into Somalia and exposing the conditions there, there is none of the corresponding international coverage that might otherwise bring more international aid to the region.

One in three Somalis are said to be in need of humanitarian assistance, and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in March that one in four Somali children are malnourished. Serat says aid agencies could avert a humanitarian catastrophe if they returned to work in certain parts of Somalia.

It may have been an extremely difficult place to work over the past two decades, but Serat says the TFG is making concerted appeals to the international community to come back.

“We are saying that the aid agencies need to come here; we will provide the necessary protection and allow them to work with those who need the assistance.”

Al-Shabab reportedly announced some days back that they would allow humanitarian efforts to reconvene in the areas under their jurisdiction and insiders will tell you that the group has also suffered as a result of the drought – which has impacted movement, food supplies and public sentiment.

This might just provide relief agencies with a chance to establish effective, trusting relationships with the TFG and al-Shabab. Or it could just be an illusion; a mirage of optimism.

As we stand under a tree in Dobley it begins to drizzle; short, refreshing drops from the pregnant clouds above fall through the thin leaves. But it stops just as suddenly it began.

*Published under an agreement with Al-Jazeera English.

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