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Somali Refugees: The Cost of Freedom

The recent conflict between the Islamists and the government of Somalia has sent a flood of thousands of Somalis into Kenya. George Thomas looks at the plight of the refugees and what makes these camps fertile soil for Al Qaeda recruiters.



DADAAB, Kenya - The latest wave of fighting is uprooting more innocent men, women and children. They're joining thousands who have already fled for their lives. CBN News traveled to the Kenya-Somalia border and found that for those refugees who make it out, the challenges are just beginning. In January, Abdullahi, his wife and five children walked for 14 days across the desert sands of Somalia. Abdullahi said, "The fighting between the Islamists and the Somali Government forced me to run away with my family." That fighting killed Abdullahi's father. "There is no peace in my country," Abdullahi said. His family fled with only the clothes on their backs -- an experience that still troubles his wife Hahwo. She said, "I met with so many problems -- I had no water, no food." Now in Dadaab, the family built a wooden frame to support a tarp provided by the U.N. It will be their new home. They have joined 150,000 other Somalis who were forced into these camps by more than 15 years of conflict. The current war waged by Muslims against Somalia's government has driven thousands to Dadaab seeking refuge. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is involved in protecting, supporting, and assisting refugees in their return or resettlement. UNHCR Community Services Officer Susana Martinez works in the refugee camps. Martinez said, "Each camp is overflowing with refugees. There's about 50,000 persons living in each, per camp." CBN News asked Martinez, "How many can each camp hold?" She replied, "Officially, 20,000…We have a very big problem because space is very limited." In the last 12 months, close to 35,000 Somali refugees have come across the border and settled in the city of Dadaab. It is a controversial place because over the years, Western intelligence officials have focused their attention here because of potential links to al-Qaeda. U.S. intelligence reports indicate that a Somali group linked to al-Qaeda is believed to be working in and around Dadaab. The group is believed to be responsible for various attacks against Americans and Israelis. This includes the 2002 bombing of an Israeli-owned resort hotel and attempted bombing of an Israeli airliner in Mombasa, Kenya. Recently, retreating Islamic fighters have been caught at the Kenya-Somalia border trying to get to Dadaab. But what makes Dadaab so attractive to terrorists and their recruiters? One reason is the pool of potential recruits. More than 40 percent of the camps' population is under the age of 30. "We hear rumors," said Martinez, "It could happen. It wouldn't surprise any of us, because there is such a huge amount of young, intelligent, English-speaking bright young men and women in the camps." Martinez says if they are not diverted from the path of terrorism, they could be enticed into joining the war in Somalia. "The young generation could be very easily absorbed into these types of activities," said Martinez, " just because of a lack of future." Some enterprising refugees are trying to make a future for themselves. They're running cell phone stands, make-shift movie theaters featuring the latest movies from India, and even small Internet shops. From one shack, isolated refugees can connect with the outside world. Jibril Ahmed of the SKY Institute of Professional Studies said, "This made the city of Dadaab to be also again a global village among the Internet service." But newcomers find it difficult to settle into their new surroundings, and many are in need of psychological help. Women are brutalized and children witness horrifying acts of violence. Dr. Kevin Tsatsiyo, the health coordinator in Dadaab , said, "The psychological part of it is not well-addressed because we do have counselors, but we only have like one per camp -- and you're talking about 70,000 people." The biggest need here is one that no aid organization can seem to fill. Abdullahi said, "In fact, there is no hope at all because we are not hoping to go back to Somalia. There is no solution at all. And even in these camps, it is like we are in prison." The influx of Somalis from the recent fighting is stretching humanitarian supplies thin. "We are very limited," Martinez said. "Funding was cut 20 percent. Now we have three different emergencies. Most of the money obviously goes towards the emergencies and for immediate humanitarian relief. Therefore, development opportunities tend to take a second seat." But some worry that unless there's more development, and soon, it's just a matter of time before another terrorist attack is carried out that had its beginnings here in the camps.


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