The flow of Somali refugees into Ethiopia appears to be picking up again as Kenyan troops advance into southern Somalia, raising security fears. As dusk falls at the Dollo Ado transit station on the Ethiopia/Somalia border, 5,000 new refugees settle in for another night of uncertainty.
They are the latest wave in the mass exodus from southern Somalia, where a combination of war and drought has left them no choice but to give up everything and flee their homeland. It is a desperate attempt to rescue themselves from starvation, and insecurity.
For now, their lives are on hold.
Fleeing en masse
As darkness descends over the sprawling tent city, long lines form outside the camp kitchen; men and women in separate queues clutching pink tickets that entitle them to a bowl of warm gruel that will tide them over till morning.
In the open-air corrugated metal offices nearby, UN refugee agency workers prepare for the inevitable next wave of refugees that will arrive in the morning.
Two hundred people showed up this day, and the flight from the famine zone has been picking up again since word came that Kenyan soldiers had crossed the border to drive out al-Qaeda inspired Islamist extremists known as al-Shabab, who have held them virtual captives, preventing them from getting outside help even as drought destroyed their crops and killed their livestock.
Contempt for al-Shabab
Those who make it to Dollo Ado say al-Shabab fighters are trying to stop them from leaving, even as famine grips the land. Young men of fighting age are especially susceptible to being detained at al-Shabab check posts. The rebels need fighters.
Al-Shabab means “the youth” in the Somali language, but these young men have rejected the rebels' extremist ideology. They speak of the fighters with contempt, spitting out the word al-Shabab as they tell how they used all sorts of ruses, and traveled circuitous routes along back roads under cover of darkness to avoid the gunmen.
As evening settles in, the sound of children is interspersed with the crackle of short wave radios. This night, the foreign voices are telling of fighting in southern Somalia as the Kenyan soldiers advance, northward toward the strategic port of Kismayo, and of the arrests of suspected al-Shabab militants in Nairobi, where a cache of explosives was found.
A walk through the camp attracts hordes of children, giving a visitor a Pied Piper-ish feeling. These kids have nothing else to do. I have brought a VOA soccer ball, and a bunch of young men who had been playing with a ragged rubber ball eagerly gather round and ask to have their picture taken.
Seeking survival, life
This is one of the few happy moments at the transit center. In a tent nearby, there are few smiles as one family observes the birth of a new son. His nine-month pregnant mother arrived here riding on a donkey, only days before delivering a child who begins life as a refugee.
These 5,000 transit center residents will be relocated within a few weeks, as soon as a new camp is built. The four existing camps are filled to capacity with 125,000 people who have arrived at Dollo Ado since the mass exodus from Somalia began earlier this year.
And word in the camps is that more people are on the way. Those already here say relatives who had stayed behind are now giving up on remaining there, and deciding to attempt the hazardous journey. Life is becoming unbearable as al-Shabab fighters try to burrow in with the local population to hide in the face of the Kenyan army's advance.
By comparison, existing in a tent in a barren desert refugee camp in a foreign land seems pretty good.