Somalis Linger on Edge of Despair
Kebri Beyah, ETHIOPIA - Sun-bleached rags haphazardly draped over sticks - this is the housing style in this refugee camp in eastern Ethiopia that is a temporary shelter for 16,000 Somalis. They come mostly from Mogadishu, where until December the Islamic courts were imposing their strict Sharia order. Others come from the Baidoa region, where the transitional federal government was stationed until an intervention of Ethiopian troops helped it to take over the capital.
They belong to different ethnic groups and clans and they brought with them the secular animosities that have plagued Somalia for decades.
Recent fighting in Somalia has added a political dimension to the divisions, although the most common opinion in this camp is to dislike both the Islamic courts ("they are not a government") and the transitional government ("they have no power"). For a generation the Somali refugees from Kebri Beyah have been watching from afar as their homeland continues to disintegrate.
Kebri Beyah was set up in 1988 and the Somalis here have been displaced by previous unrest in their country: some by the 1988 attack by former dictator Siad Barre on the Somaliland, or by the turmoil that followed his fleeing in 1991. Others fled the fighting between warlords that preceded and followed the ill-fated "humanitarian intervention" that did not live up to its US-given code name "Operation Restore Hope," and is better known by its unfortunate final chapter, "Black Hawk Down."
The fact that Kebri Beyah has been in existence for 19 years is a testimony to the tragic history of Somalia and to the constant unrest that displaces more and more civilians. It is also a testimony to how impotent (or is it unwilling?) the international community is when it comes to Somalia. The December intervention by Ethiopia to rout out the Islamic courts has more to do with United States conducting its "war on terrorism" than with concerns to bring law and order to Somalia.
And the main supporters have little time and even less cash to spend on Kebri Beyah, a remnant of old troubles, which are a distant irritant as new troubles arise.
With no money to pay for education, health, community services, or even improvement of the water availability we, the non-government organizations, have no way to address aggressiveness among restless adolescents, eliminate quarrels at the water taps where women and children line up for hours with their colorful jerry cans, or improve the refugees' skills to help them prepare for life after Kebri Beyah.
Part of the reason why this camp is an exceptionally difficult place to work is that here are concentrated all the unresolved cases from the eight camps that were set up by the UN following the 1988 conflict. By now, 97 percent of the over 500,000 refugees were repatriated, only Kebri Beyah remains.
"We are like the dirty water that stays when a lake dried up," commented Hawa Yusuf Hassan, 41, and the mother of 10 children. Her husband, a carpenter from the Bantu ethnic group, disappeared three years ago because non-Bantu refugees were giving him (and the non-Bantu Hawa) a hard time. She suspects that like many Somalis he tried to get to Yemen on a rickety fishing boat, but she has no news.
None of the dozen inhabitants of Kebri Beyah I asked thought that there would be new refugees coming to Ethiopia. For Somalis, the role of the troops from Addis Ababa who entered Somalia is an issue. So, unlike in previous conflicts, Ethiopia is not seen as destination for asylum seekers.
Their opinions are based on listening to the BBC (which they say they trust) and Ethiopian state radio. None of the refugees is considering going back to Somalia and the news about the return of violence, lawlessness and questionable moves by the US- and Ethiopian-backed transitional government in Mogadishu confirms their fears.
Resettlement to Third World countries is rare, local integration in Ethiopia is not an option, but perhaps if the worst scenarios of massive flow of new refugees do not come true, then the UN and other international donors will be financially able and morally compelled to help alleviate the fate of these old refugees under their sun-bleached rag shelters.