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Somali Refugee Camp Bursting at Seams With New Arrivals

In recent months, renewed fighting in Somalia has prompted thousands of people there to flee to the Dadaab refugee camps in Northern Kenya. The new arrivals are further straining the camps' limited resources and there have been increasing reports of severe food and water shortages. But Somali refugees say the hardships they endure in Dadaab are still far better than what they had faced at home.

Earlier this month, 33-year-old Zamzam Hussein arrived at the dusty, overcrowded Dadaab refugee camps, having barely survived a mortar barrage that destroyed her home in the Somali capital Mogadishu.

Hussein says fighting between Islamist insurgents and government forces broke out and mortars began raining down in her neighborhood. In the chaos, she says she became separated from her husband, mother and one of her young daughters.

Hussein fled Mogadishu, traveling hundreds of kilometers from Mogadishu to reach the safety of Dadaab. She says she walked the last 90 kilometers on foot, carrying her six-month old baby in her arms.

Since January, near-daily fighting between the hard-line Islamist insurgents and forces loyal to Somalia's U.N.-backed government has prompted some 33,000 Somalis to cross the border and seek refuge at Dadaab.

Largest refugee complex in world

Dadaab is the largest refugee complex in the world. The three separate camps were originally built to house Somali refugees from the civil war that erupted after factional leaders overthrew the regime of Dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.

The camps were designed to shelter 90,000 people. But they are now home to more than 270,000 Somalis. Residents there say water and food are constantly in short supply, leading to violence among the refugees. Yearly outbreaks of cholera and other diseases are another source of concern.

But Hussein and many others say as bad as conditions are at Dadaab, they are relieved at not having to endure the constant sound of gunfire and fearing for their lives.

The promise of peace and security is what also persuaded school teacher Hussein Aden Mohamed and his nine family members to abandon their home in Mogadishu two weeks ago and make the difficult and dangerous journey to Dadaab.

Mohamed says the escalating violence in the capital made daily life unbearable. He says he could not get enough food to eat and everyone was constantly being threatened by all sides in the conflict. Mogadishu is becoming hopeless, he says, but he feels safe at last in Dadaab.

Some refugees to be relocated

Last week, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga said the Kenyan government is planning to temporarily relocate some of the refugees in Dadaab to camps in Kakuma in northwest Kenya. The move is thought to be in response to a recent request made by the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, for the Kenyan government to donate more land to alleviate overcrowding at the three Dadaab camps.

Meanwhile, government and non-governmental aid agencies say they are working to improve living conditions within the camps.

Sanitation conditions to improve

For example, Dadaab's antiquated water system, constructed nearly 20 years ago to provide water for a third of the refugee population that it is now serving, is due to be replaced with funding from The European Commission Humanitarian Aid department.

UNHCR and the non-governmental organization CARE, who manage the camps, say they are working towards improving sanitation conditions. To curb cholera outbreaks, the European Commission Humanitarian Aid department says it will pay for the construction of 5,000 new latrines.

A clerk working for UNHCR at one of the refugee camps, Gibson Karuma, says he is currently registering about 300 new arrivals a day.

"I would say every person who comes to Dadaab comes with a lot of hope," Karuma said. "Of course, physically they're tired and hungry and maybe having some medical issues but in their hearts and their eyes you can see they have a lot of hope because they know they will have peace here and they are likely to get assistance."

In many ways, the most vital service that governments and aid workers provide at Dadaab is to give safe haven to thousands of people, who are fleeing one of the longest and most vicious conflicts in the world.

UNHCR estimates that nearly 170,000 people have been uprooted from Mogadishu alone since the start of the latest round of fighting on May 7.