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Widows unite to cope with horrors of Somalia's Al Shabab

Somali widows in the Eastleigh section of Kenya's capital, Nairobi, band together for protection against militants fighting for Somalia's Al Shabab group, which two New Jersey men were arrested this weekend for trying to help.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / June 7, 2010

People flee with their belongings in northern Mogadishu, Somalia, Monday, May 24, 2010, after militants attacked Somalia's presidential compound and other government positions in the capital. Widows and female refugees from the fighting between government forces and Islamist militant groups like Al-Shabab have come together in Kenya to help one another.

AP/Photo Farah Abdi Warsameh


Nairobi, Kenya

The women found each other in the market of Eastleigh, a rough-and-tumble suburb of Nairobi, Kenya, that two decades of war have turned into a home away from home for Somalia's immigrants.

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One is a Somali widow. Another is a teenage Somali orphan. They were neighbors in Mogadishu’s Bakara market, until fighting and intimidation by Islamist militants such as the Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabab took away the men in their lives, and with them, the women's sense of security.

Now alone and unprotected in a safer but still hostile adopted country, they work together to sell tea on Eastleigh’s busy streets, and cling to each other like sisters, a family of women.

“We are like turtles without shells, completely unprotected,” says Istiqlal Harian Farah, a 35-year-old Somali mother of three children, two of them now dead. “We have no male relatives here, nobody outside in Europe or America to send us money, nobody in Somalia who can look after us. When someone pulls our dress in the street, you can’t even shout out to complain.”

She stops, her eyes filling with tears. “But when we come home and we combine our cries, there is a glimmer of hope. At least there is the confidence in having each other. We can go to the shops, and together we can protect our children.”

Two decades of instability and war in Somalia have destroyed countless families in that country, displacing 1.55 million from their homes into internal exile, while forcing another 440,000 others to flee to Kenya, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Yemen. More than 80 percent of these families fled because of insecurity, and many have lost family members. But the most vulnerable of these are women, who lack protection against sexual exploitation and abuse, and increasingly, forced recruitment into the dangerous front lines of Islamist rebel groups.

Statistics are hard to gather, particularly in conservative Somali societies where personal matters are kept quiet, and especially in refugee camps, where pro- and anti-militant Somalis live side by side. But if the women streaming into United Nations-run displacement camps in the northern Somali city of Bossasso are a gauge, then sexual exploitation and gender-based violence have become frightfully common. At the Bossasso camp, more than 300 survivors of gender-based violence were identified by doctors and referred to treatment centers.

One woman's ordeal with Al Shabab

Aside from tragedy, desperation, and a roof, Ms. Farah and her housemates share little in common.

Farah was a basketball player on the Somali national women’s team who spent the past decade and a half as a government official, urging young Somali girls to continue in school and to participate in sports. Her activism attracted the interest of the Islamist militia, Al Shabab, who had taken control of the Bakara market in late 2008, when US-backed Ethiopian troops retreated from their occupation of Somalia. Al Shabab militants wanted her to use her skills to recruit women for Al Shabab.

“I refused,” she says, still defiant a year later. As a devout Muslim, she disagreed with what she saw was the alien version of Islam being preached by Al Shabab, a theology that cast aside Somali traditions of tolerance and negotiated settlement of disputes, in favor of quick and violent justice.