A Somali refugee mother (right) whose 4-year-old son was killed by militants. Her sister-in-law sits next to her. She and her remaining children now live in a refugee camp near Dadaab, northeast Kenya. Following a severe drought, many families faced starvation and left Somalia on foot, risking attacks by armed bandits and wild animals. Thousands of refugees are flooding into Dadaab every week. Photo by Laura Sheahen for Catholic Relief Services

By Laura Sheahen

“Aden, my oldest son, was four years old. He was watching our goats,” says Ahada, a Somali woman in her early twenties. “Men with guns came and wanted the animals. Aden shouted, ‘Don’t take our goats!’”

Ahada’s small son was caught in the midst of the chaotic, seemingly never-ending war in Somalia. Armed bandits, militias and other violent groups terrorize the country’s rural population, who are mostly nomadic herdsmen. Children are not spared. Aden wasn’t.

Aden was shot and killed in the midst of a drought that was leading to famine. Ahada’s husband was also killed by militants. After that she knew she had to flee. She’d heard of a country called Kenya, so she took her two children there, crossing the border.

Thousands of other mothers were making the journey as well. Thirty-year-old Hawa, a mother of seven, was eight months pregnant as she walked for ten days, carrying her toddler on her back.

Children were dying where she lived, but more slowly, not from bullets. “Animals, people died due to drought,” she says. “They died of hunger. Many children died, too many for me to count.”

In June 2011, Ahada and Hawa reached the sprawling refugee camps of Dadaab in northeast Kenya. There they joined fellow Somalis who made the same journey decades ago.

“I was 10 years old when we came here,” says a man named Somai. His story is similar to Aden’s, but he lived. “One day when we were living in Somalia, people attacked us, took our goats, and killed my father,” he says. “They hit me in the chest with the butt of a gun, and I fell unconscious.”

He recovered enough to flee on foot with his family. “I will never forget that trip. We had no food. We were eating leaves,” he says. “My brother was almost five. He died of hunger on the way.”

Today, the camp hospitals are full of weak, listless children who survived the journey but are on the edge of starvation. Brought to the hospital in wheelbarrows or on donkey carts, or their mother’s arms, the ones who can swallow are given a high-nutrient paste. Others are hooked to IVs.

And then there are refugee children who are saved, and whose families are alive–but who have lost, forever, the security of having two parents. Mahamud was separated from his wife and children 8 years ago; he was in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, when war flared up badly. By the time he got to where his family was staying, “everyone was gone,” he says. They had fled from Somalia to Ethiopia, which closed the border. So Mahamud went to Kenya, surviving on grass and leaves as he walked hundreds of miles. Now he’s able to talk to his children every few months, but doesn’t know how he will see them again. He worries they don’t have enough food; Ethiopia has bit hit badly by the recent drought as well.

Though the newly-arrived refugees in the Kenyan camps are putting a strain on water and aid for older residents, Mahamud isn’t upset. “When I see the new arrivals, I always remember what happened to me in Somalia,” he says. “It reminds me that my children are suffering the same way that these people are suffering.”

Laura Sheahen is CRS’ regional information officer for Asia. She is reporting from Kenya.