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Article originally published in the Standard on Sunday on June 14th 2015
You cannot interview Warsame Abdihakim Mohamed between 1300hrs and 1400hrs on any given day. He will look at you, and then look at your translator. Then gently tug at his beard and say ‘no’ with a genuine smile. He will then pull up his baggy pale green trousers, run a handkerchief over his forehead and tell you to wait an hour.
After an hour he will be back. He will then usher you into the bowels of Midnimo Ice Manufacturing Plant, then he will stare at you through his beady dark eyes and inform the translator to inform you to proceed with your questions. But just as you are about to speak he will beat you to it and say:
“Welcome to Hagadera.” Then extend his arm for a handshake as if the two of you have met for the first time.
In 1992, he crossed over from Somalia with his family fleeing war in his country of birth.
“It was very bad back then,” he says. “At the beginning life as a refugee was very difficult. We kept hoping that we would eventually go back home. But every morning, more people were crossing over bearing worse news.”
Soon, he and others like him, realised that although their hearts were elsewhere, home would be the place their heads lay at night.
“So we decided to do something about it,” he says. “With a group of friends we contributed a few dollars each, sought the involvement of the locals and made a life for ourselves.”
Next to Midnimo Ice Plant is Midnimo Hotel. Behind Midnimo Hotel is Midnimo Power Plant. In Hagadera, it is assumed anyone who walks into a hotel has not eaten. So as one looks around at an unoccupied table, one of the many employees will be at your shoulder holding an enormous tray of rice and goat meat enough to feed four hungry men. When you sit, the waiter will lay the tray in front of you and ask:
“Will your friends have the same?”
Abdihakim, like his father before him ran a hotel in Mogadishu before the chaos of 1991. Naturally that is what he took to on this side of the border. The Ice Plant was build out of need.
“Here temperatures can get up to 40 degrees Celsius… so people would crave for cold drinks. Business owners would need ice to store some of their produce, so we decided to build one,” he says.
To do so, they needed electricity. Hagadera is 9 kilometres from Dadaab, the alternative source of power.
“So we bought a huge generator to run the ice plant. But the output was too much. So we decided to sell off some power to local business men and homesteads at the reasonable fee of Sh200 every month. That is how Midnimo Power Plant was born,” he says.
The low hanging cables are noticeable when one walks through Hagadera Camp- from the market all through to the residential blocks.
Of all the five camps, Hagadera is famed for hosting the biggest population of urban refugees- those who fled from cities in Somalia.
Generally, business has been good. But over the past two and a half months, profit margins have become slimmer.
“Many people do not have money to spend. If you are not careful, you will give out all your stock on credit,” he says.
Two and a half months ago, the government, through the ministry of Interior banned a number of money transfer operators, hawallas, from operating in the country reasoning that these operators were knowingly or unknowingly funding terror activities.
Many of them had offices in the Dadaab refugee camp complex. Many of them remain closed.
“What this means is that as a businessman, I cannot start hounding my clients for unpaid bills. I know they have no way of receiving money from outside the camp,” Abdihakim says.
Business at the camps is based on trust. Eat now, pay later.
“But the later is now becoming forever,” he says. A customer is at the front of the ice plant. He is paying cash. Abdhiakim leaves mid- sentence to go attend to him. When he finishes with the customer, he comes back to our table apologetic. He looks disturbed and mumbles a few words to the translator. Midnimo Power Plant is down. This means angry clients. A stalled factory. Households with no power. An angry clientele.
For him, there can be no bigger emergency.
Story originally published in the Standard on Sunday on June 14th 2015
Mohammed Abdi Abdulahi is slightly built with an even slighter tone to his voice. Words slip out of his lips so nervously, his syllables seem accidental. Like they wouldn’t want to impose themselves on the goings-on. Like they are used to not being heard. He is 27, old enough to have a wife and child. But not old enough to have a dream he can believe in. “What can we do? This is life for us,” he says. Next to him a billboard towers.
“Somalia is my home, to return is my choice,” it declares. Mohammed is part of its target audience, but somehow, the message does not make sense. It is the same for hundreds of thousands of other refugees from Somalia. “Return where? Even if you were to get me onto a bus, or a plane and drop me in Somalia, where would I. I am Kenyan in every way,” he says. Finding shade The Dadaab refugee camp population is 353,590. Of these, 336,695 are from Somalia. At the height of the humanitarian crisis in 2011, the population had increased to 486,913.
Mohammed is a statistic, clawing through life to become more than a number. Dadaab is a massive complex made up of five satellite camps – Dagahaley, Ifo Main, Ifo 2, Kambioos and Hagadera. Hagadera has been Mohammed’s home all his life. His family found a livelihood here more than two decades ago. Later, he found love. “Even when you are in the harshest of deserts, somehow you will find shade,” he philosophises. Sara Hassan Mohammed has been his shade in the sun.
“Without him, I would suffer a lot. I have been a refugee for as long as I have been alive… My mum gave birth to me here. I have done the same. I have a daughter,” Sara says. The two have been married for close to five years. “At least our daughter has a birth certificate. We hope in future she can use it to get other papers that will enable her to follow her heart’s desires,” Mohammed says. At birth, they didn’t haggle over the name best suited for their daughter. “We called her Sumaiya.
“We were tired of living a bad life. She is one of the few good things that have happened to us while here,” says Sara. Sumaiya loosely translates to ‘good quality.’ The two want the best for their child. But they remain practical to the realities around them.
“You ask me what I want Sumaiya to have in future,” Sara says.
“Do you have children?”
“What do you want for her?”
“I want her to go to the best schools. I want her to find her purpose early in life. I want her to have access to the best healthcare if need be…” I begin.
“Adheer, you have complicated dreams,” says Sara.
“I just want Sumaiya to travel and see the world… I want her to leave Hagadera and decide whether she can go north, south, east or west. I want her to be free,” she says.
A tear falls on her orange hijab and expands into an intrusive, shapeless blot, but in a few minutes, the moisture is gobbled up by Hagadera’s unforgiving heat. Sumaiya, has fallen asleep under her mother’s hijab. Mohammed knows about love. At least enough to know that his family cannot live off the four-letter word.
“To be a refugee is hard. But to be a husband, a father and the sole breadwinner for family, both extended and immediate, is something else,” he says. “I know she loves me… but what if she meets someone who can offer her much more than I can?” he says. “Would I stand in the way of her happiness? I don’t know.” His eyes wander to a column of suitcases next to him. The cases hold their world. Their savings. Their education certificates – he and his wife went through secondary school in Hagadera. Nowadays, the suitcases stay packed.
“They say one day the government will tell us to leave,” Sara’s mother, Zeytun, joins the conversation. “We must be ready.” The relatives live in the same compound. Here it is called a ‘block section’. A section is made up of several blocks, normally of relatives or families that walked into the camp on the same day. Their houses are structures with twig walls and tarpaulin or polythene roofs. Some houses have iron sheet walls, but all the floors are earthen. Reed or manila mats are rolled over the floors to create the seating room.
A visitor is offered a plastic chair. If there are many visitors, then it becomes awkward. A decision has to be made on who takes the chair. At one end of the compound, a sheep and a goat share a tiny pen. “We used to have more animals, but Mohammed lost his job and we sold a few. We have to keep on living,” Zeytun says. “We know he will get another one soon, Inshallah.” For three years, Mohammed worked as an incentive worker for one of the aid agencies. Although he was qualified for the job he was given, he was paid a pittance to keep him interested in living. But what if he does not get another position? What next? “I trust Allah that the pen writing the story of my life has not run out of ink. And that as He turns the next page, my load will be lighter,” Mohammed says.
“But if His will is done, then that will be it. I will pray that at least I leave Sumaiya with memories passed down from my parents about their home in Somalia. My own memories of a place I would like to call home but can’t. And I will ask Allah to at least grant my daughter happier memories to give my grandchildren.” Normal life In April, during the aftermath of the tragic Garissa University massacre that left 148 dead and many more injured and traumatised, Deputy President William Ruto gave the United Nations three months to close the Dadaab refugee camps, failing which Kenya would forcefully return them to Somalia.
Story originally published in the Standard on Sunday on June 14th 2015
After more than two decades of playing host to the world’s largest refugee camp, a once accommodating government has had enough. In April, Deputy President William Ruto said the camp should be shut down and its more than 350,000 inhabitants repatriated to Somalia.
Peace still seems elusive in Somalia, and its absence has over the years been reason enough to allow for the different facets of Dadaab refugee camp to thrive. The Dadaab refugee complex in northern Kenya is a cramped affair smack in the middle of a dust bowl that, in the blink of an eye, can turn into a flood plain. Originally designed to accommodate 90,000 refugees, the camps now hold four times that number.
This makes Dadaab the third-largest population centre in Kenya after Nairobi and Mombasa. From an outsider’s perspective, Dadaab’s remoteness and harshness have conspired to make it, like the rest of the former North Eastern Province, almost uninhabitable. Areas around the refugee camps are often run by groups of armed, merciless bandits who have preyed on the desperation of the refugees, the goodwill of the locals and the absence of a functional government. But for the insiders, Dadaab is home, with challenges like any other ‘town’. “The Government should ask itself why it is not hard for a young man to say ‘no’ to Al Shabaab advances,” Mohamed Abdi, the youth chairman at Dagahaley Camp, says.
“Look at it this way, I was born at the camp. I went to school here and completed my secondary school education. Then my world came to an abrupt end. Even with my high school qualification, I cannot get out of Dagahaley in pursuit of a better life. Effectively, I am retired at 20, without ever having worked.” He and many of his age mates know no other country but Kenya, “But we are treated like second class human beings. I cannot even go to the nearest town without special permission from the Department of Refugee Affairs. Tell me how we will convince our friends that Al Shabaab is the enemy yet they are offering free movement and want to utilise what we learnt in school.”
Official data from the Department of Refugee Affairs shows there are more than 6,000 grandchildren of the original 1991 refugees born in Dadaab. Like many of their parents, these children have never seen Somalia and are practically aid dependent guests in overcrowded shelters. It is almost impossible to think that things could get worse for this group. Among them live members of Al Shabaab, who use the remoteness of the outpost and alleged greed among police officers deployed in the area to thrive and move freely.
“Al Shabaab will demand quasi-religious loyalty. The corrupt police will demand their cut or else they will brand you a terrorist. If you try to escape all this, you become an illegal alien and can be jailed,” Muhamed Salat, 31, says.
Salat and some of his friends try to keep themselves occupied. Through donor funding, in 2005, they set up a computer and ICT centre, where they teach school leavers basic computer skills. After each class graduates, instructors are asked the same question: We now know about computers; what next?
The international community has argued that the Kenyan Government is using Dadaab as a scapegoat in its war on terror. On April 2, the country woke up to the troubling news of a siege in Garissa, the closest urban centre to Dadaab. By dusk, 148 students and security personnel lay dead. Less than 24 hours after the siege, Al Shabaab claimed responsibility. The Garissa massacre rekindled talk of closure of the camps. Investigations by The Standard on Sunday indicated that the attackers did not have to go through Dadaab to get to the university.
Security sources told The Standard on Sunday that the attackers used Fafi Road, a seldom manned road that starts at Kenya’s border with Somalia, through Wajir South and stops barely 50 metres from the university’s gate. In effect, Fafi Road is the designated smuggling route for both goods and human beings. Chiefs at the different refugee camps, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisals, said they provide intelligence to relevant authorities but the information is seldom acted upon.
Instead, whenever suspicious individuals are spotted in the camps, some in law enforcement are accused of seeing this as a path to riches. For instance, on March 26, 2013, two customs official were gunned down in Garissa Town. Local authorities blamed the killings on robbers. Illegal entry But other residents claim the customs officials, after learning of the illegal entry of contraband courtesy of individuals sponsored by a local businessman, extorted money from the trader.
After getting their cut, they then told their colleagues of the windfall, and they went to the same businessman for cuts of their own. Fed up, the traders ordered a hit and less than 24 hours after the deal, the two lay dead side by side. “We agree that terrorists may be hiding among refugees. But we are also sure that greed among our security agents has played a big part in this mess,” security expert Ng’etich Bitok told The Standard on Sunday. Multiple interviews with security agents in the region also point to sellouts within the force. There have been reports of team leaders claiming urgent off days and feigning sickness hours before deadly missions. “In essence, we are shooting ourselves in the foot. For us to be successful, we will need the refugees on our side,” Ng’etich says.
“We will need to treat them humanely.” For Ahmed Muktar, also a founding member of the Dagahaley ICT centre, this will include some freedom of movement. It is three years since he stepped out of the camp.
“Unless you have a very good reason for getting out or have a heavy pocket, you will not leave this place. Now you know why the wrong people are making their way into Kenya. The law abiding continue to suffer,” says Muktar. His colleague, Salat, first left the camp in 2003. Back then, movement was not very restricted. He managed to get a permit to go ask for a school uniform from his uncle. Three years later, he left the camp again, then one more time in 2013. Three times in his lifetime.
“At least 100,000 of us are young people with a proper education. If you forcefully send us all back to a country we do not know, where will most of us end up? There are no jobs in Somalia. There are no opportunities. Some of us have no family on the other side of the border. Many of us will end up taking up arms,” says Salat.
If they ever went back to Somalia, Salat and Muktar would be called Somali siju – derogatory term for outsider. In Kenya, they are aliens. Does Muktar think that one day he, too, will be considered Kenyan? “I don’t think so. But if it happens, we will contribute a lot to the country in our own little way.” Going back to Somalia might be easier for Abdi Walid Shiriye. He has been at Ifo 2 camp for just three years. He, unlike Muktar and Salat, has 43 years’ worth of memories of his homeland. But still, he says it will not be easy for him to make that return trip. Fighting between Al Shabaab and government forces in 2012 resulted in massive destruction in his village.
“I am a pastoralist. All my animals died in that conflict. Yes, if Kenya gets tired of me, I will go. To what, I don’t know,” Shiriye says. For now though, he stays his welcome. Every day, more trickle into the camps officially or unofficially in search of a better life despite of the impending camp shut down.