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For Some Somalis There is Scarce Optimism on Peace Process - 2003-01-27

Peace talks in Kenya aimed at bringing an end to Somalia's long civil war are entering their fourth month. But delegates report that little progress has been made.

The landscape surrounding the Dadaab refugee camps in northeastern Kenya is bleak. For hundreds of kilometers, there is nothing but blowing sand and sparse vegetation. Daytime temperatures average 40 degrees Celsius in the shade.

Only goats and donkeys are fit to be here, said 40-year-old Halima Hassan Mursal, a Somali woman who arrived in Dadaab more than a decade ago. Pointing to some utensils and clothing scattered around her mostly empty shack, she says her life has been nothing but one hardship after another.

Ms. Mursal said she fled her home in Mogadishu in 1991, when the government of dictator Mohammed Siad Barre was overthrown and rival clans throughout the country began fighting for supremacy.

She and her family moved from one city to another in search of safety. Along the way, a stray bullet killed her brother and she was raped and tortured by militiamen. She also lost one of her eight children. Two others starved to death.

Like most of the 130,000 Somali refugees at Dadaab, Ms. Mursal said she feels trapped: unable to leave the camps because she has not received permission to resettle elsewhere and unable to go back to Somalia because the warring clans have not put down their guns.

Desperate for a solution, some refugees at Dadaab are pinning their hopes on the Kenya-mediated peace talks underway in Eldoret, thousands of kilometers west of here.

In a shack across the compound from Ms. Mursal, 51-year-old Bashir Omar fiddles with his battered shortwave radio, searching for news on the progress of the nearly four-month-old talks.

He acknowledged that there does not appear to be much progress, but he said he is remaining optimistic that a deal can be struck to end Somalia's 12-year-old civil war. One of the major objectives of the talks is to get more than 22 Somali factions to work together in creating a federalist structure that balances the country's many clans.

Mr. Omar said he has heard that many of the warlords are not cooperating, and some are being downright selfish and greedy. But he said he believes some of the men are honest. He said he hopes it is the honest men who win in the end.

But there are few signs of a happy ending any time soon.

At the start of the talks in October, hundreds of delegates showed up without invitations, creating delays and ill-feelings. Frustrated by the slow progress of the talks, several warlords have gone back to Somalia. No one knows if they will return. As for the delegates who are still in Eldoret, many of hotels have been threatening to evict them for not paying their bills.

Mr. Omar's neighbor in the compound, 27-year-old Halima Adan Adan said she does not see how Somalia can ever be peaceful again.

Ms. Adan said none of the warlords have children or families left in Somalia. She said they have all been sent overseas so they do not have to suffer like the rest of us. She said she is convinced the warlords care only about themselves and how to keep power, not about Somalis like her.

The talks in Eldoret are the 14th attempt since 1991 to restore order in Somalia, but they have generated more hope for a settlement than previous peace conferences. Unlike the past, most of the important warlords are attending these talks. In addition, the United States is closely monitoring the progress.

Somalia's importance to the West has grown with the onset of the U.S.-led war against terrorism. Because it has porous borders and little political structure, the predominantly Muslim country has long been considered an ideal breeding ground for al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations.

But if a peace deal is put in place in Somalia, refugees like Halima Hassan Mursal say it will be a while before they return to their homeland, if at all.

Ms. Mursal saidll of the women in the camps have the same background of violence and suffering. Whether it is in Somalia or here, life is the same, cruel and unforgiving. She said she no longer cares whether she stays or goes.