Thousands in Somalia flee clashes with Islamist militants

McClatchy NewspapersMay 6, 2009 

Habibo Kune, 40, center, sits among fellow refugees from Somalia in the Hagadera refugee camp in eastern Kenya.

SHASHANK BENGALI / MCT

HAGADERA, Kenya — The pirates get the headlines, but what drove Habibo Kune and her teenage son out of Somalia and into this sprawling, sand-blown refugee camp was a different group of men with guns.

Islamist militants, who've waged a two-year, blood-soaked insurgency, continue to battle pro-government forces for territory throughout southern Somalia. Since January, a surge in violence has driven more than 25,000 people into the camps of eastern Kenya — already overflowing with two decades' worth of Somali refugees — which has badly strained one of the world's largest humanitarian operations.

In Hagadera, the largest of three camps, new arrivals like Kune are crowding with relatives in bare, tree-branch huts covered in plastic sheets or fraying strips of clothing. The refugees say that the insurgents — a wholly separate phenomenon from the secular, ransom-hungry pirates — have imposed religious law on their towns and killed civilians who resisted.

"The pirates cause problems in the ocean," said Kune, 40, seated on the dirt floor of a hut, her round face creased with worry, "but the Islamists cause many more problems inside the country."

Relief agencies are concerned that anti-piracy efforts are diverting attention and resources from the plight of these refugees and hundreds of thousands in even more desperate camps in Somalia. While countries pledged $213 million last month to beef up security forces in the East African nation, the United Nations' request for $918 million for relief programs is still two-thirds unmet.

A funding shortfall also forced the U.N. World Food Program to reduce rations in the camps — the refugees' only source of food — by 17 percent last month. After a $10 million internal loan, the agency expects to resume full food distribution within weeks.

"The world has shown it can act quickly and decisively when commercial interests are at stake," said Andrea Pattison, a spokeswoman for the Oxfam relief agency. "It's now time to show the same sense of urgency for alleviating the suffering of millions of people on land who remain in desperate need of help."

Sometimes it seems as if no amount of money could help Somalia right itself.

While there are no proven links between the southern-based Islamists and the secular, northern-based pirates, both phenomena are symptoms of the lawlessness and economic wreckage that have characterized the country since a 1991 coup felled its last functioning government.

Two decades of chaos have swelled the Kenyan camps into the world's largest refugee settlement, sheltering 271,000 people on sun-scorched land that was meant to hold only one-third that many.

Amid shortages of food, water, health supplies and clean latrines, aid workers say that the refugees are increasingly vulnerable to outbreaks of disease. Cases of cholera surfaced in the camps earlier this year but the disease was contained.

Not everyone thinks that the focus on piracy has hurt refugees.

The top U.N. diplomat for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, said that the surge in piracy — some 100 ships have been attacked in the Indian Ocean so far this year, nearly as many as in all of last year — has helped refocus attention on the need to shore up Somalia's government.

"We need simultaneous action on security, development and humanitarian needs," Ould-Abdallah said. "This should not be an occasion for quarrels between those who are here to help."

The insurgency is led by al Shabaab, a militant group that claims allegiance to al Qaida and that the State Department has designated a terrorist organization. In Kune's southern town of Bardheere, the militants instituted Islamic law and levied high taxes on businesses. Kune was forced to close her tea stall because she couldn't afford to pay.

"Al Shabaab is the superpower in that region," she said.

However, the Islamists' hard-line ways have sparked a backlash among Somalis, the vast majority of whom favor a moderate form of Sunni Islam. Last month in Bardheere, the Islamists clashed with a secular, pro-government militia called Ahlu Sunna Waljamaa, which has formed in recent months to battle al Shabaab.

After several days of gunbattles, Kune grabbed her 13-year-old son and jumped on a minibus that was heading to Kenya. They sneaked across a border that Kenyan authorities have closed for security reasons, but it's so long and unregulated that bus drivers routinely cross it at night, charging about $90 for the passage.

Human rights groups have sharply criticized Kenya for closing the border and for sending captured refugees back to Somalia, in violation of international laws against deporting asylum seekers back to their countries of origin. In a recent report, Human Rights Watch said that Kenyan authorities had deported possibly thousands of Somali refugees, "thereby violating the most fundamental part of refugee law."

Still, some 9,000 new refugees were registered in January alone, the largest monthly tally in more than a year.

Besides the constant threat of violence, a long-running drought in Somalia has decimated the sheep and goat herds that many families rely on for their livelihoods. Aid agencies estimate that more than 3 million people — half the country — need emergency assistance and that 200,000 children are severely malnourished.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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