Somalis face perilous journey to escape famine

Miss Hawo Abdi sits with her mother and father at Dagahaley camp. Credit Laura Sheahen/CRS

By Laura Sheahen,

Death by starvation, death by lions and hyenas or death by armed bandits. Which do you pick? For refugees streaming out of Somalia, there’s no luxury of choice. They’re facing all three.

Carrying babies in front and toddlers piggyback, clutching small plastic bags of belongings, thousands of Somalis are trudging barefoot for dozens or hundreds of miles. For months, as no rains fell in their homeland, they watched their cattle and goats die of thirst and hunger. Their stocks of corn or flour ran out, and they watched their children growing thinner and weaker. Finally, they gave up hoping that something would change and they left.

They travel in groups of about 50 because danger is all around them: ambushes by men with guns are common in the area. So when they see something threatening in the distance, they run for what cover they can find—not easy in empty brush terrain. “We were running and hiding behind small shrubs,” says one little boy. Some refugees are robbed at gunpoint of their food and few remaining possessions. Some are raped or killed. “They took our clothes, but didn’t hurt me,” says a mother named Ambiya.

At night, packs of hyenas and lions move towards them. “Five or six lions came, and we threw stones to make them go away,” says Bishar, a father of five. “There was the possibility that hyenas would eat us,” says a woman named Amina. “They tried to attack, but we were in group” and escaped.

Some of the Somali refugees don’t even know exactly where they’ve going. “We heard there was a country known as Kenya where people are helped,” says Bishar, hugging his small daughter and looking at her dry, cracked feet.

After ten days of walking, he and his family have reached the refugee camps in the Kenyan area of Dadaab. But they’re still sleeping outside–so many refugees arrive every day that there aren’t enough tents. Some refugees use long sticks to make a dome-shaped skeleton, then cover it with whatever cloth or plastic they can find. Bishar and his family don’t have the sticks, and bandits took their clothes.

Water is available if they walk for it, but they don’t have anything to carry it in.

The official camps have overflowed with people; now refugees are setting up makeshift living spaces on a floodplain that will be a swamp in the autumn. They keep coming, faces seamed with the orange dust that rises from the road. They’ve made it past militants and wild animals. What they don’t know is what they’ll face next.

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


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