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Somali Refugees' Hopes Dwindle for Return to War-Torn Homeland


The recent takeover of much of southern Somalia by the Islamic courts has cast a shadow on some Somali refugees heading home. New arrivals keep surging across the border, and more than 21,000 so far this year have crossed into Kenya. Nico Gnecchi reports from Dadaab, near the Somali border in northeastern Kenya.

Liboi is a dusty and desolate frontier town where 323 Somalis, mainly women, children and young men, wait expressionless and exhausted to board United Nations trucks. Beneath the few shady trees outside Liboi's solitary police office, the group looks wearily at the officer calling out their names. They are waiting to be assigned to one of three refugee camps here. They have few possessions, primarily jerry cans for collecting water and bundles of cloth used to carry their meager belongings.

Mr. Rutto, the man in charge of immigration at Liboi's police station, says he has not faced such numbers since the civil war erupted in the early 90's.

"In the last two months we have witnessed refugees come in more numbers than before," he said. "We are feeling the brunt of the influx, we are putting all our resources into them."

All of the refugees are being taken to Dadaab, 80 kilometers from the border with Somalia, which is home to about 140,000 registered refugees.

Care International, the lead agency in Dadaab, say a combination of increasing instability in Somalia and the drought in the region has brought an average of 150 refugees per day.

Much of the recent influx of refugees began in March, when the Islamic courts and the existing warlords fought to establish control over Somalia's largest city, Mogadishu. The fighting since spread outside Mogadishu, increasing the incidents of violence between the Islamic courts, the weak interim government based in Baidoa and the remaining militias in the south. The Islamists control eight of Somalia's 18 provinces.

Although the Islamic courts are holding power-sharing talks with the interim government, there still remains the task of integrating some 20,000 former volunteer soldiers. In the past, they depended on ransom for survival. Now, they have to look for an alternative source of income. The Islamic courts have started rehabilitation camps, but lack the resources to absorb all the former militias and stop the sporadic violence around the country.

The refugees bring stories of recent clashes between local militias in Kismaayo, a coastal town south of Mogadishu. A single mother, Fartun Abdullahi Abdirahman, says she was on the road for two weeks, to escape the increasing tensions.

"I traveled a bit by foot, a bit by public transport where I could. I was with the minorities who are defenseless. Before there was a war, which was happening back then, now there is a bigger war - an al-Qaida war. The way in Somalia now is the way of the gun," she said. "I don't want my son growing up in that fear."

Mohamed Bashir, 36, is a devout Muslim worked as a waiter in the Ramadhan hotel, but was forced into exile.

"What I fled was the Islamic courts and Islamic Sharia," he said. "When they captured the town, they called me to join their soldiers and I refused them and they threatened me that if I didn't joint their soldiers they will kill me. Also, I was a waiter in a hotel. They came to the hotel, they eat there, then they asked all the youth to join their group, I said I can't join them, I don't even know how to shoot the gun. I am a Muslim, the situation now is Mogadishu is divided, some welcoming the Islamic courts others want the government, but the government is far away, in Baidoa."

These refugees are destined to a plot of dusty land and makeshift constructions built out of sticks and loose material in one of Dadaab's three camps, while they wait for peace in their country. Camp residents, 97 percent of whom are of Somali origin, feel this current influx destroys their hopes for a return.

Agencies are struggling to provide for the current influx of refugees. Many of their community development programs, aimed at getting the refugee populations self-sufficient in most of their basic services, have succeeded. A lack of rain for more than a year in one of East Africa's worst droughts has made the situation worse. Azak Issa, one of the program officers, voices his concerns.

"Right now we have new arrivals up to 21,000, but if the influx continue[s] and then we have more than 30,000, we may need government permission to establish a new camp," said Issa. "The number of refugees arriving per day is more than 200."

Dadaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya is home to more than 140,000 people. The current influx began in March when fighting between the two parties and other militia groups spread outside Mogadishu. There are estimates that another 50,000 will be arriving by the end of this year.

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