Somalia: Fleeing from the frying pan into the fire

HARGEISA, 29 October 2008 (IRIN)

  • When he fled Mogadishu, Mohamed Abdi thought life outside the war-torn capital could not be worse than what he was leaving behind. But since arriving in the self-declared republic of Somaliland in September, Abdi has had to reconsider.

Besides the overcrowded conditions in shelters for the displaced, Abdi and hundreds more who fled fighting in Mogadishu are still awaiting official registration in Somaliland and have yet to receive food aid.

Their situation is complicated because agencies and local authorities remain divided over whether the southerners are refugees from another country or internally displaced people (IDPs).

"Those who come from Somalia are considered refugees by the Somaliland government; therefore the policy of Somaliland has not changed on that issue," Ali Ibrahim, Minister of Planning, said, adding that any report suggesting otherwise "is false and erroneous".

Somaliland, he said, treated the southerners according to international conventions covering refugees. "We are doing the best we can for them," he added.

Ibrahim stressed that only people from Somaliland were considered "displaced persons" - a term some agencies uses rather than "internally displaced persons".

There are no accurate figures available, but the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there are about 75,000 displaced people in Somaliland.

Life since Mogadishu

Meanwhile, Abdi and others have to make do with whatever they can lay their hands on.

They travelled for nine days from Mogadishu: "We were caught between the two sides," he told IRIN in Hargeisa on 20 October. "The government and the Ethiopians were accusing us [civilians] of being part of the Muqawama [resistance] and the resistance was accusing us of collaborating with the enemy."

Abdi owned a shop in the Black Sea area of Mogadishu, where he lived with his wife and five children. He said by the time they left, life had become "impossible".

"My shop was destroyed and we lost many neighbours and friends," he explained. "So I decided to take my family to a safer place."

Osman Hussein, another displaced civilian, said Mogadishu had become a killing zone.

"It seemed like every day we were burying someone we loved or knew," Hussein added. "We may not have been the target but we always suffered and no one cares."

The suffering did not end the day they left Mogadishu. During the trip, they were robbed twice and the women raped.

"We were robbed near Jowhar and then between Bulo Burte and Beletweyne," said Abdi. "The second time, our women were raped and we could not do anything."

Sharing shelters

Some of the new arrivals were sharing shelters in the camp with IDPs from Somaliland, as they awaited official registration.

However, none of the new arrivals had received food assistance, forcing many to look for work in Hargeisa.

The influx from south-central Somalia to Somaliland started early this year.

"They have been coming in droves since February," said Farhan Abdi Saleebaan, a protection officer with CCBRS, a local NGO.

Saleebaan said by the time they arrive in Hargeisa, the displaced were traumatised, weak and disoriented. "They really are in bad shape," he said, adding that some had lost family members while others suffered untold miseries at the hands of bandits en route.

Once in Hargeisa, they also faced resentment from locals. "They [the locals] think they are competing for scarce jobs and there is some discrimination against them," said Saleebaan.

Abdi, who is also the community leader, said despite some of the economic difficulties they faced, they were much happier in Hargeisa because they had peace and security.

After an initial assessment by a working group led by the Ministry of Reintegration, resettlement and rehabilitation, shelter material was distributed on 18 October to about 2,000 of the most vulnerable.

"I am now living in a very small hut with no door, but I sleep like I haven't slept in a long time," Abdi told IRIN. "The children can go outside and play, without worrying about a shell landing on them.

"We don't have much and we depend on the kindness of these people; some days we eat, some we don't," Abdi added. "But at least we have peace and security - that is what we want and the chance to make a living for our families without being afraid of being killed."