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Somalia's refugees stream into Kenya

Refugee camps are strained by a massive influx as Somalians flee what they fear could soon be full-scale war.

By Rob CrillyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 16, 2006


They are arriving in droves, on foot, by donkey, or in matatus – the crowded minibuses that crisscross Somalia's border with Kenya.

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Some 18,000 refugees have left their homes in Somalia this year for Dadaab's sprawling city of sticks.

Here they are handed cooking utensils and plastic sheets to fashion a simple shelter from acacia branches.

Some fled Somalia's capital Mogadishu in late May, at the height of clashes between Islamist militias and the city's hated warlords. Others fled later, as the triumphant Islamists began to shut down cinemas showing Western movies, threatened rapists with stoning, and imposed hard-line Islamic law on areas under their control.

Now, with the Islamists strengthening their grip on the country, and the Transitional Federal Government teetering close to collapse, the threat of full-scale war keeps a steady stream of people arriving at this sprawling refugee camp.

"There is not much here, but I came because we heard that the refugee camps were peaceful," says Noorto Ibrahim Hassan, her lips quivering beneath a vivid green hijab that covers her head.

One woman's story

In the shade of her makeshift home, built from plastic sheets stretched over sticks bent into a dome, she explains how she and her family endured the anarchy of Mogadishu for 15 years after the collapse of the country's last functioning government.

They stayed in after dark and avoided the city's warlord-run roadblocks as much as possible, staying in their own part of town.

But the final straw came in early June, when the Islamists were on the verge of ousting the warlords who had controlled the city for 15 years. Two of her cousins were killed by mortars.

"I felt we just had to leave to escape the bullets and the war, and coming here was the only way to look after my family," she says.

Ms. Hassan left her husband in Mogadishu and walked with her three young daughters for 20 miles before finding a ride on a truck heading south to the Kenyan border.

The Islamists have been accused by the US of harboring Al Qaeda operatives, but closer to home they are credited with bringing peace to Mogadishu for the first time in years.

Many of the refugees tell a different story.

Aid workers say the arrivals are dominated by women and children running from violence, as well as boys and young men who fear being drafted into opposing militias.

Mohammed Qazilbash, senior program manager for CARE, the Atlanta-based aid agency that manages the camp, says: "The families that we see arriving are often in quite dire circumstances in terms of both a health and from a nutritional point of view, as well as from a trauma perspective."

He is dealing with a worst-case scenario of 100,000 new arrivals this year in a camp already home to 136,000 refugees.

More likely, he says, is that a total of 50,000 will find their way to Dadaab's stick-built shelters – a 20-fold increase in the 2,500 arrivals last year.

Rations reduced to cope with influx