|Haleema Mohammed fled Somalia after her brothers were murdered before her eyes.
By Jennifer F. Steil
24 Feb, 2007
Haleema Mohammed, 45, of Galkayo realized that staying in Somalia was no longer an option one unforgettable night in 1991, when she was forced to watch as her brothers were slaughtered in front of her eyes. “Forty people were killed that night in Galkayo,” she said. “Five were my brothers.”
Mohammed, sitting in a tent at the al-Kharaz refugee camp in Yemen’s Lahej Governorate, speaks with calm stoicism, her gaze defiant and unwavering. Her eyes, which she says were black in Somalia, are now blue. They were bleached by Yemen’s merciless desert sun, she says. She recounts the rest of her journey from Somalia to Yemen, in flat, unemotional tones. She and many other women in Galkayo fled the city, fearing for their lives, she said.
But it wasn’t until 1996, that they finally managed to find a way to escape their country’s relentless violence, and save enough money to pay for their passage out. Mohammed and others from her tribe made their way to the port city of Bosaso, leaving many of their loved ones behind. Mohammed left her five young children in the care of her sister. Her husband had died the previous year. Since the civil war began in Somalia in 1991, Bosaso has been the country’s busiest port—particularly when it comes to human trafficking.
Smugglers charge from $50 to $100 to take refugees across the Gulf of Aden, piling 100 or more people into small boats meant for 25. In Bosaso, Mohammed and scores of others fleeing Somalia’s bloody battles found a boat to take them to Yemen, for $50 per person. Ninety people climbed aboard that small boat, and they were lucky. Although hundreds of Somalis die in the waters between Somalia and Yemen every year, everyone in Mohammed’s boat survived.
They arrived at the village of Bir Ali without incident, and found a car to take them to the Al-Jaheen refugee camp in Abyan. There she dwelt for five years, before the United Nations High Commission for Refugees transferred the refugees to the new Al-Kharaz camp, which opened in 2001. Yemen’s largest refugee camp, Al-Kharaz is currently home to 8,793 refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia. Six long years have passed since Mohammed arrived. She has not seen her children—now ages 12, 14, 18, 20, and 22—since 1996. When asked how she passes her days, she seems surprised at the question. “Nothing,” she says.
“I do nothing. Just think. I watch my hair become white.” This sums up rather succinctly the existential plight of the refugees now living at the Kharaz camp. Their lives are consist primarily of waiting—waiting for Somalia to calm down enough so that they can return, waiting for job opportunities, waiting for better food, better shelter, better healthcare, waiting for something miraculous to happen to lift them out of their misery.
For this reason, any time an unfamiliar person visits the camp, she is instantaneously surrounded by scores of anxious Somalis, who hope that this person is the miracle they have awaited, that help has arrived at last. Many of them carry handwritten or mimeographed letters that they press into the hands of visitors. Most are addressed to the UNHCR, and request all manner of additional help. Asli Abdullahi Hasson hands a reporter a letter addressed to the Head of the UNHCR. The letter describes the bombing of her home in 1991, the death of her relatives, and her flight from Somalia. On her way to Yemen, men “tried to rape [me] in front of my husband,” she writes.
UNHCR’s Al Kharaz refugee camp, sheltering some 8,793 refugees, mostly from Somalia and Ethiopia
“He defended me unfortunately he was fired bullets. He was not dead but had a bad wound.” She ends her tale of horror with a simple plea. “Please,” she writes. “Assist me to look for a better future.” There are countless stories like hers, and as many letters, photocopied and handed to every new person they see. “Life in the camp is all about waiting for something to happen, or imagining what will happen,” said Laura Buffoni, the community services officer for the UNHCR in Aden.
“The hope is always there of someone coming in to bring some solution to them.” One of the camp’s goals, she said, is to try to create opportunities for self-reliance, so that the refugees can feel more in control of their destinies. This is no easy task. Kharaz is located on an isolated expanse of steaming-hot desert, many miles from towns, roads, water, and work. “The land is what the government offered,” said Buffoni.
“The most difficult thing about this environment is the isolation.” Some of the refugees are employed by the various non-governmental organizations that do work in the camp, and some are employed as teachers. But there are no opportunities for farming in this wasteland, and although goats are cheap, there is not enough pasture to feed them. What little pasture that exists is used by people in nearby villages. “You don’t want refugees and villagers competing for resources,” said Buffoni. Several entrepreneurial souls have set up small businesses in the camp, such as general stores, cafes, or telephone shops. But for many refugees, the days are filled with nothing but ever-dwindling hope. “We have no income here,” said Mohammed, who worked as a nurse in the Somali marines.
“Nothing to do. No job.”
She longs to return to Somalia, but it isn’t yet safe, she says. “Still, it is better to go to Somalia than to go on living here. But I don’t know how to go. We have nothing.” “Nothing” may be a small, yet understandable, exaggeration. The refugees have, at least, some form of shelter, food rations, healthcare at the camp’s clinic, and education for the children. There are no walls around the camp, a sprawling complex of look-alike cinder block shelters mingled with a cluster of tents for new arrivals, and refugees may come and go as they wish.
Only about 5 percent of the refugees who pass through decide to stay at the camp, said Buffoni. The rest head for urban areas, where they hope to find jobs washing cars, cleaning houses, or doing other sorts of menial labor. Abon Abdullahee, 22, who arrived at the camp from Somalia just last week, has no intention of staying any longer than necessary. “I am going to Saudi Arabia,” she said. “I will look for work there. I will work as anything, a servant, anything.” Like thousands of others, Abdullahee, originally of Mogadishu, traveled to Yemen by boat. She and nine of her relatives squeezed onto a boat leaving from Bosaso carrying 118 people, one of four launching that day. During the journey, two of the boats disappeared.
Abdullahee’s boat, however, landed safely at the coastal village of Bir Ali about 48 hours after leaving Bosaso. Exhausted, the refugees slept on the beach that night. In the morning, they walked to the road that runs between Mukallah and Aden. At the first police checkpoint they passed, said Abdullahee, the police took their money. “Everyone’s money was taken,” she said. “Then the police took us to the Maifa’a Reception Center.” The Maifa’a Reception Center is where almost all refugees are first processed. No matter where they come ashore, the Somalis either find their way to the center, or villagers who see the refugees on the beach alert UNHCR, which sends transport for them, said Aouad Baobaid, a field specialist with UNHCR.
Khadija Farah, with her four children.
“When we can’t get to people—we can’t find everyone—the villagers take care of them,” said Baobaid. “They feed them and put them up for the night, women with women, and men with men. They even bury the dead.” There are plenty of dead. Last year, UNHCR Yemen reported that some 27,000 people made the perilous voyage to Yemen, with 330 dying on the way, and another 300 still missing. In the first two months of this year, 59 refugees drowned and have been buried; 32 are still missing, according to the latest figures from UNHCR.
Five boats arrived in Yemen in January. Seven people from those boats are confirmed dead. Some 685 refugees made their way to shore. In February, 18 boats arrived. Fifty-two of the passengers on those boats are confirmed dead, while 32 are missing. A total of 1,467 arrived at the coast. A total of 95,909 refugees are estimated to currently live in Yemen. Many of these dead are buried in mass graves along the seaside. On a stretch of soft sand and crushed shells in Majdaha, one of the smugglers’ favored drop points, are several noticeable mounds. “This is a mass grave,” said Baobaid, waving toward the mounds.
“At least 32 persons are buried here.” There is nothing here to mark these graves, save a plastic water bottle half full of sand, a torn green bucket, and scores of blue crabs scuttling sideways across them to get to the water. Majdaha, located directly across the sea from Bosaso, is a tiny fishing village made of up thatched huts made from palm fronds. Last week, two wrecked smugglers’ boats lay washed up on its sands, riddled with holes and half full of sand.
“These boats are meant to hold 25 people, and often they hold 120,” said Baobaid. “People sit on each other. If just one of the passengers stands, the boat will capsize.” Often refugees are carried in holds underneath these boats, where many die from asphyxiation or dehydration before reaching the shore. The smugglers who operate these boats also often drop refugees too far from shore, fearful of being apprehended. Those who cannot swim, drown.
So Abdullahee is lucky. She and her companions made it to the Maifa’a Reception Center, where they spent two days and were provided with food, a place to bathe, and a shelter in which to rest. Maifa’a, a cluster of whitewashed cinderblock shelters, was established in 1996, in order to register and process the refugees. There, refugees are asked when they left Somalia, how their journey was, why they fled, and where they arrived. It was at Maifa’a that Abdullahee and others on her boat were told the fate of the two missing boats.
Everyone in those two boats had died, and many of the dead had already washed up onshore. “Some of them I knew by face, and some were Ethiopian,” said Abdullahee, whose face remained remarkably calm given her recent ordeal. Kharaz was the next stop after Maifa’a for Abdullahee, as it is for most other refugees. Currently, she is living in a makeshift tent at the camp, while waiting to move on to Saudi Arabia.
She plans to stay there until Somalia is at peace and she has made enough money to return home to her three-year-old daughter, still in Mogadishu. Many of the tents, where new arrivals wait to be given one of the cinderblock shelters, are made by the refugees themselves. Pieces of colorful cloth and blankets are stitched together to shield inhabitants from the relentless sun. In February, the air already feels stifling, and clothing is quickly drenched in sweat.
In summer, the heat can be unbearable, and many refugees fall ill, said Dr. Fawzia Abdul Naji, the gynecologist/obstetrician in residence at the camp. She is one of three doctors working full-time at Kharaz. In one of the homemade tents lives Khadija Mohammed Farah, who shares three tiny, tented rooms with six people. Inside, the air reeks of excrement, and flies are ubiquitous. A woman lies very still on a thin mattress in one of the rooms. “She is very ill,” says Farah. In another room is a rudimentary kitchen, with a camp stove and kerosene lamp.
Farah has been at the camp for two years, and is still awaiting a more permanent shelter. Her four children cling to her while she complains about the conditions of the camp. A crowd of 25 other Somalis crowd in to add their own laments. “Many journalists come here, and nothing ever changes,” cries one. Farah says that she wants to return to Somalia, when it is safe. Until then, she feels trapped. “Look,” she says, pulling down the front of her colorful dress.
“I was burned horribly.” Her entire chest is a mass of scar tissue, caused when her lamp started a fire. It was an accident, she says. A man pushes to the front of a crowd. “Won’t you help me!” he cries, pulling down the front of his own shirt, to reveal a crater-shaped scar on his neck. “Help me, I am all alone with four kids.” The psychological scars many bear are even worse.
Issa Ahmed, 50, originally of Mogadishu, says he was forced to flee to Yemen in 1995, because of the terror of the wars between Somali clans. He came with his wife and three children, and stayed at the Jaheen camp until 2001, when they all moved to Kharaz. There is not enough fruit or vegetables at the camp, says Ahmed. Just rice and flour. “Also, security is not good,” he says. “One year ago, someone took a child outside of the camp and killed him, and the police did nothing. The child was found without eyes.” He also claims that a small girl was recently raped in the same area.
There was one child who was murdered outside the camp, in 2004, said Saado Quol, Senior Protection Officer for UNHCR. That case was promptly referred to the Yemeni authorities, who are responsible for security at the camp. He and Buffoni both said that the girl to whom Ahmed referred was assaulted, but not raped. Refugees often inflate stories such as these, as a result of their trauma, said Quol. Similarly, refugees commonly have exaggerated hopes for their future, according to a study published in the Journal of Refugee Studies.
“In the Kenyan refugee camps near Dadaab, buufis is a common phenomenon amongst Somalis,” writes Cindy Horst in the Journal of Refugee Studies. “Buufi is a Somali word that means ‘to blow into or to inflate.’ This literally refers to air, hawo, which also stands for a longing or desire for something specific, an ambition or even a daydream.” When these dreams of a better life are not realized, there can be devastating psychological effects. To stave off despair, the refugees of Kharaz often help each other as much as they can, many say.
“We hope that all refugees will be one hand, and help each other,” says Ahmed. Anisa Ahmed Hussein, 27, lives in one of the cinderblock shelters and works for Save the Children Sweden, helping disabled children to become more functional. Each morning, she visits the homes of about seven to 12 children, and helps them to do therapeutic exercises. Some of the children are blind, some deaf, and some do not have full use of their limbs. Hussein can speak to the deaf in Arabic Sign Language, and has some training in physical therapy.
Although she manages to lead a productive life in the face of extreme difficulty, Hussein, who has lived in refugee camps since she was 16, is waiting for a better future. “I am waiting for any future where a person can live their life,” she said. “But not Kharaz, and not Yemen. I want to be in a place with human rights. Hope does not die.”
Source: Yemen Observer