Returning Home, Somalis Struggle To Rebuild Their Old Ways of Life

HALIMA ALI and her four children live in a stick hut just big enough for everyone to curl up in at night. The family survives on pittances earned from selling firewood gathered miles from town. They hope somehow to get enough money to buy livestock and resume the nomadic life they fled during the civil war.

But after two years in a refugee camp in Kenya, Mrs. Ali was glad to come home last year. ``This is our region; we know the people very well,'' she says as her two young, barefooted sons scurry off to a school held under a nearby tree.

She is also happy to be away from the horrible conditions of the camps. According to a report last October by Africa Watch, hundreds of Somali refugee women have been raped in the camps - mostly by bandits, but some by members of the Kenyan police force. ``Sometimes they raped the women and took their milk and food,'' Ali says.

Out of the approximately 1 million Somalis who fled their country during the civil war in 1991 and 1992, only about 50,000 returned last year as fighting subsided with the presence of foreign troops, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which is helping resettle many of the returned Somalis.

But the scheduled withdrawal of most Western troops by the end of March, and predictions from a wide range of Somalis and Westerners of renewed fighting after that, could slow the flow of returnees.

Many in this southern Somali town are nomads who ``suffer a lot,'' says a Western relief worker here. ``Among the old ones, there are signs of malnutrition,'' she adds.

Emergency Pastoralist Assistance, which operates out of northern Kenya, is the only private relief agency that providing free livestock to some returning Somali nomads, according to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which helped fund the program.

The program provides a donkey and one male and nine female goats or sheep to nomadic families. The donkey can be used as a ``taxi'' that nomadic families can hire out and which brings in income. That helps to reduce pressure to sell the livestock for food money, says Alastair Villiers, one of the relief program directors.

Some relief workers have criticized the program for making a ``gift'' of livestock, says a USAID official. But farmers are given seeds and tools as well, he says in defense of the program.

Farmers returning to Somalia often fare better than nomads, who are not given livestock, because the farmers go back to their land with donated seeds and tools. Yet many farmers also face uncertainties, including the weather and conflicting ownership claims about the land they left behind.

In places such as Luuq in southern Somalia, repatriation has been successful, says Gregory Beck of the International Rescue Committee, a private relief group. UNHCR's food supplied to returnees in Luuq have ``helped people get their feet on the ground [and] get a crop in,'' he says.

In addition to food aid, UNHCR has started numerous small community development projects to give returnees ``a boost ... before the world forgets about Somalia,'' says Panos Moumtzis, UNCHR's spokesman in Nairobi.

With farmers returning to their land, food production is increasing in this region, says Thierry Ebener, a Swiss agronomist with the International Committee of the Red Cross.

But finding money to pay for the food is hard for Somalis such as artist Mohamed Khalif and his family. They lived in a big house in the port city of Kismayu until they are forced to flee to Kenya in May 1992 when fighting broke out between rival clans. The Khalifs plunged from a modest but comfortable life into poverty. ``We walked from Kismayu to Kenya. It took a month,'' Mrs. Khalif says. Along the way, they were robbed and beaten.

Last August, the family moved to Bardera because it was calmer than Kismayu, Mr. Khalif explains.

Now his wife weaves plastic handbags and he tries to sell paintings from a small roadside stall. ``We're better off than some,'' he adds.

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