Hotel Somalia Meeting Fate in World's Largest Refugee Camp

Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing into eastern Kenya to escape hunger, drought and Islamist militias in Somalia. Their new home is the world's biggest refugee camp in Dadaab, which some of them will never leave. But the example of one man shows that it can still be a place of hope.

By in Dadaab, Kenya

On the day the first planeload of supplies of a peanut-based paste lands in the Somali capital Mogadishu, a rickety white minibus known as a matatu sets out from the Somali village of Dhoobley, about 500 kilometers (312 miles) to the southwest. The vehicle, which is loaded with about 30 refugees, isn't the first share taxi to leave the village, and it won't be the last. Some say that there are hardly any matatus left in Somalia. Others say that soon there won't be any Somalis left either, in this country plagued by wars and natural disasters.

The bus is loaded up in the shade of an acacia tree on the abandoned market square of Dhoobley, a village 20 kilometers from the Kenyan border in southern Somalia, a region controlled by radical Islamist militias. The passengers jostling for space in the bus include emaciated women dressed in colorful costumes, like Maria, 40, and Hawa, 32. It took them several days to walk to Dhoobley from their villages farther to the north, where they had abandoned their homes and left behind dead herds of cattle and goats. They walked in the searing heat, without water and food, and with hardly enough strength to continue. As they sit on the bus, flies crawl around their mouths and their children hang apathetically from their limp breasts.

Somali policemen carrying rusty AK-47 assault rifles, their olive-green uniforms hanging loosely on their thin frames, will accompany the women to the border with Kenya. Their job is to project the women from attacks by roving groups of bandits who tie the men to trees while they rape the women.

The bus is now rushing in a cloud of dust across the porous border, some distance away from the fat Kenyan immigration officer, who sits in a jeep. He is supposed to monitor cross-border traffic.

In Kenya, the bus continues along a dusty road, passing countless kilometers of bleak grasslands where wild animals roamed only a few years ago. They have since been replaced by a sea of tattered plastic bags. The earth is dark red, and even at dusk, when the refugees arrive at their destination, it is still emitting warmth from the day's heat. The skeletons of cows, buffalo and camels that died of thirst line the road, producing a terrible stench.

The Only Refuge

The women are fleeing from what is probably the most devastating drought to strike the Horn of Africa in 60 years. They hope to build a future in peace in neighboring Kenya. But for new arrivals like 17-year-old Deka from the Somali port city of Kismayo, this peace remains elusive. For young men like Ahmed, who grew up in the camp and knows nothing else, living in exile became everyday reality a long time ago. And for Somalia's former defense minister, a future no longer exists. The camp was the only refuge still available to him.

This unlikely place, the largest refugee camp in the world, is called Dadaab. It is an enormous artificial city consisting of individual settlements of tent camps, barracks, mud huts and red stone houses that have grown together. The camp was originally built to accommodate 90,000 people in the early 1990s, when a civil war erupted in Somalia and the first Somalis fled the country in droves. Now, in early July, after two years in which not a single drop of monsoon rain has fallen in the region, more than 11 million East Africans are faced with famine. The camp is already home to 400,000 Somalis, with another 1,300 arriving every day. The United Nations estimates there will be half a million people in Dadaab by the end of the year.

For the last two months Ahmed Hussein Abdullai, 28, has had a recurring sense of déjà-vu, as he sees events unfolding that conjure up memories of his own torturous ordeal. It breaks his heart, he says, to witness the suffering of these new arrivals. When he sees the dying children being carried around on their mothers' backs, and sees new graves consisting of small mounds of red earth constantly appearing on the cemetery in front of his house, protected by thorn bushes in accordance with the traditions of Somali herders, he is reminded of his experiences when he left Somalia. Things are just as they were back then, he says. Nothing has changed.

'Your Success Is Our Concern'

Abdullai was nine when he came to Dadaab. It was in 1992, just months after the civil war had erupted in the capital Mogadishu. Back then Dadaab had hardly any "mzungus," as the people here refer to the whites with their cargo pants, satellite dishes and all-wheel drive Jeeps, who provided them with donations from around the world. Back then the refugees were assigned to a tent and told to learn two languages, Swahili and English, if they hoped to get along in their new home.

Today Abdullai is a successful man, a biology and chemistry teacher at a middle school in the Ifo camp, one of the three camp units at Dadaab. He is also the first bookseller in the camp. His shop is called "Iftin," which translates as "light." His shop even has a motto, which he wrote by hand on the shop sign: "Your success is our concern."

For a refugee who has no papers, will never again be allowed to leave the camp and is unable to get a work permit in Kenya, Abdullai has done pretty well for himself. A friendly, intelligent man with an ironed shirt and a goatee, he is a role model for the new arrivals. He says: "Being a refugee is a challenge. Those who make something of it, who go to school and university, can change their country -- even if it's from exile."

Abdullai still lives in the same place where his father once pitched a tent for him and his five siblings, in parcel B15. Today two houses of cow dung and red earth stand on a neatly swept plot of land on the parcel.

No Intention to Return Home

He recently became a father, and he has also completed a training program to become a conflict-resolution teacher. His job is to teach children about peace, and to set an example of what makes a good leader. The lessons were too theoretical for his taste, says Abdullai, who says he prefers hands-on teaching instead of lecturing. But he is also strict with his students, making sure that they actually learn something. He was just elected president of the Ifo youth organization, which finds jobs for high-school graduates and helps them fill out applications for scholarship programs in Canada.

After school is over in the afternoon, Abdullai can always be found in his bookstore. The shop quickly fills up with schoolchildren in yellow uniforms, their veiled mothers with their henna tattoos, the chapatti baker and the tea merchant. Everyone is talking about the prices of tea, milk and gasoline, which recently doubled. Shortly before closing up the shop, Abdullai presses his black Grundig transistor radio to his ear, listens to the BBC news and reports on the airlift into Mogadishu. They discuss the future of the Horn of Africa, but as concerned as they are about Somalia, it also seems as if these refugees had left their country behind long ago, and that none of them ever intends to return home.

Abdullai's most loyal customer is a man in a baggy suit who rarely buys anything. He comes there every day, and stands in the stuffy shop between schoolbooks and maps of Africa. His name is Adan Ahmed Abdi, he is 61, and he is the former defense minister of Somalia. He too arrived in Dadaab with nothing, after fleeing across the border in a matatu on an April day four years ago, a short time after one of the countless transitional governments had driven him out of office and out of his home.

The former minister and the bookseller have become friends in the diaspora. And while the bookseller looks confidently to the future, the former defense minister has nothing left but memories. Abdi is a failed politician. He tried to save his country, and yet he never believed for a moment that he could change anything at all.

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