Somalia’s vanquished and outsiders flee to city of hungry




Mark Huband meets refugees who lost family and property in the civil war, as they wait for food and medicines in Liboi, northern Kenya

The Guardian, 22 August 1992

Mutassir Mahamut lay in the sand at the border post, after walking for 10 days from his farm, an outsider in Somalia forced by hunger and war to become one of the 300,000 refugees who have fled to Kenya.

“All my property was taken. The crops I planted have not been harvested. What does it mean to have nothing left? I had three children. They all died. I had a wife. I divorced her three months ago. I wasn’t able to reason with her. We had to part. She is still in Somalia. I told her I was leaving. She refused to come with me.”

Mutassir’s family moved to Somalia from Kenya when. He was five. He inherited his grandmother’s mango plantation at Gosh in the fertile Juba valley. He is a Bantu – an immigrant to Somalia, and not one of the numerous clans whose civil war has destroyed the country.

“I’m not politically oriented,” he says. “I wasn’t bothered by the war. The Somali people all had a negative attitude towards the Bantus. We were mistreated by the Somalis. They took us as slaves. Then the war started. It was inevitable. And, as the saying goes, when two bulls fight it’s the grass that suffer. We are the grass. I will never go back. I am prepared to live as a refugee forever.”

As Somalia has imploded, the outsiders and the vanquished in the conflict have been forced to flee. Their farms have been occupied by rival clans, their stocks have been stolen and hunger has driven them to walk for weeks to the border where the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCH) has set up camps. There are 45,000 refugees at the Liboi camp in northern Kenya.

In the men’s ward of Liboi refugee camp hospital, all but one of the men are from the Darod clan of the deposed Somali president Mohammed Siad Barre, Most people living in the region are of the Darod: some of the many Darod at the nearby camp are simply searching for food.

A Darod man, once a farmer from Kismayu, now in Liboi hospital suffering from yellow fever, said: “The people doing the fighting are the ones who  have no cares about life. They aren’t educated and they don’t have anything to care about.”

Beside him lies a malnourished supporter of the United Somali Congress, the arch-rivals of the Darod: “We are together now on this side of the border. At the moment everybody here is sick. We don’t have the strength to fight. It’s better to be brothers,” he says.

Outside the hospital, which is run by the French aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières, a hot wind whips up the sand across the barren plain, sending the refugees inside the city of dome-shaped plastic covered huts they have lived m for up to two years. The hovels stretch for miles around an airstrip where, three times a week, small aircraft arrive from Nairobi carrying supplies of qat – the narcotic drug that Somalis        chew ceaselessly.

A crowd gathers around the plane, held back by Kenyan policemen, as the bales of weed are unloaded into the back of a rusting Fiat. “There are about 15 to 20 bags of qat arriving each day,” says Pascal Jakiat, the police chief in Liboi. “The Somalis like it very much. They chew it all night.”

Liboi is a city of the hungry, living alongside the qat-sellers, donkey carts trotting past the straggling remnants of families who have nothing, and Somali traditional healers whom the French charity hopes to incorporate within the camp’s medical provisions. The healers have taken the opportunity to bump up their prices.

The convoys of trucks bringing refugees from the border are guarded by armed police. Bandits have attacked the convoys and stolen what the refugees managed to salvage before fleeing Somalia. Two weeks ago, bandits made off with an ambulance from the hospital compound. Bandits killed the police chief in the Kenyan border town of Mandera.

As refugees flood in, at a rate of 450 per day at Liboi, others move further south. A rise in violent crime in Nairobi has been attributed to weapons being brought across the border. Last week the Kenyan authorities rounded-up 1,550 Somali and Ethiopian refugees in response to local resentment. Most were released after a joint appeal by foreign embassies and the UNHCR.

The first consignment of a 145,000-tonne United States food airlift arrived in the north Kenyan town of Wajir yesterday, destined for Somali refugees in Kenya. But the magnet of relief food supplies in Kenya and the displacement of thousands of for whom Somalia can no longer be considered home, will clearly add to the numbers of refugees, not least because foreign pledges of food aid have not been accompanied by improved security in Somalia.


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