Home News Rapists, hunger and hyenas stalk displaced Somali women

Rapists, hunger and hyenas stalk displaced Somali women

Published on 25/10/2009

Galkayo — Hyenas, rape, kidnappings — there is no shortage of dangers for women in the grim refugee camps of northern Somalia.

But it is still better than the horrors they fled: civil war battles in Mogadishu, drought in neighbouring Ethiopia, inter-clan warfare and what they say was state-sponsored ethnic persecution and killings.

Many have "lost" their husbands. Some men abandoned their families, others tried to cross the Gulf of Aden into Yemen and have given no sign of life since. Some are still part of the family but are away eking out a living herding livestock.

The wastelands on the edge of Galkayo, a large swathe of low thorn scrub where millions of plastic bags flutter in the breeze, are home to several camps.

In a camp called Mustaqbal, which translates as "future," Halima, a divorcee of 35, recounted from behind her veil how she fled shelling in Mogadishu, 700 kilometres (430 miles) to the south, with her five children.

"We are the breadwinners for our families. We have no husbands and our daily earnings are not enough to survive on," she said, gesticulating with henna-patterned hands.

Halima has what is known locally as a "shoulder shop" — she hawks goods — in this case clothing — from door to door.

The huts consist of acacia branches twisted into a dome shape and covered with ragged cloths and rice sacks. A typical hut for a family is between two and four square metres (22 and 44 square feet).

Without men the women are constantly at risk of attack. They have to pay for guards at night.

"Not a week goes by when we don’t have a rape case," said Hawa Adan Mohamed, a women’s rights activist who runs vocational training schemes and manufacturing projects in Galkayo.

"If you go to the police there’s no follow up. They say that because of the clan issue they cannot touch the perpetrator."

"Here the strongest man takes all," said a United Nations official.

Just down the road in Bulo Baaley camp the smell is overbearing. After dark, adults and children alike defecate into plastic potties which stand in front of the huts.

The shacks here are bigger but the landowner collects three dollars rent.

"If you can’t pay, he takes one of the children. He keeps the child until he gets paid," explained Kasman Katal, a mother of three who looks older than her 20 years.

"My husband left for Yemen. We’ve had no news since. We don’t know if he survived," she said, flapping at the flies swarming her baby’s face.

She and her neighbour Marianne Abdi, a pretty girl of 15 who is already divorced with a child, make money by removing garbage from houses in Galkayo and dumping it on the edge of town.

Tawakal camp, home to some 1,700 families, has a school and latrines. It is further away from any formal settlement so work is harder to come by. But there is no rent to pay and school is free.

Hawa, sat on a piece of sacking in front of her hut, looks close to giving up on life. Her aged mother lies next to her, sick with malaria while her adolescent daughter struggles to do the washing up in a shallow pan of water.

"We get food on credit then we pay our debts when relatives send us something," she said staring at the ground.

"Galkayo is surrounded by conflict-affected displaced from south and central Somalia and also by drought-affected displaced," said Talil Musa Mohamed, a traditional leader from South Galkayo.

Humanitarian workers say north and south Galkayo together count some 220,000 displaced people.

Galkayo, which straddles the "border" between the northeastern semi-autonomous region of Puntland and Somalia proper, is not the only area affected.

Somalia is one of the worst crises around as African heads of state hold a special summit in Kampala on the continent’s refugee and displacement problem.

Civilians fleeing conflict have turned northern Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp into the world’s largest. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there are around 1.5 million displaced people in Somalia, close to a sixth of the total population.

Huge numbers are concentrated in the north, in Puntland or Somaliland, a breakaway republic.

Grinding poverty, coupled with Somalia’s clan system, means that the displaced are not always welcome outside their native region.

Those fleeing the south and centre are fair game for armed gangs.

"In Mogadishu we were under continual artillery fire; we saw people die and be eaten by cats and dogs. Then on the way here we were robbed, we were raped and we lost children when they got sick and died," said Fatuma Ahmed, 39.

She spoke on behalf of about 100 women who fled the south between May and August and who took refuge in Hargeysa, Somaliland, seen as the country’s safest city.

The aggressors are youths in civilian clothes. Either no one knows which militia they belong to, or no one wants to say. They attack trucks at night while passengers sleep on board.

Another group with little future are people of Somali origin who settled in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia and who fled what they described as a drought exacerbated by inter-clan warfare.

UNHCR and Relief International, a US aid group, have launched a livestock programme in Tawakal, Bulo Baaley and three other camps. In an attempt to move away from dependence on food aid, goats or chickens are distributed to needy families.

In Tawakal the increase in the goat population has in turn drawn more hyenas.

Habiba Barre, 30, lives in a hovel made of flattened powdered milk cans. She showed off a hole in the side of the hut that has been filled with earth. A hyena tried to get in to carry off her three goats.

Barre says she fled Ethiopia after the government cracked down on ethnic Somalis, accusing them of hosting rebels. She has kept her baby with her, but six older children are staying with relatives. She too survives on occasional remittances. But she has high hopes for her goats and is looking forward to being able to sell the milk.

"Here at least we are only scared of hyenas, not of being killed," she said.