Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Sitting on the barren ground and waving away dust swirling around her, Khadija Abdi Hajji patiently waits for the metal gates to open.
Hajji, 62, is in a group of Somalis who have just entered Kenya to escape years of violence in their country.
Travelling in a rickety van, they are lucky to have made it safely to the sprawling Ifo refugee camp in Garissa. As the van comes to a stop and gates to the camp are swung open, a stream of haggard looking women and children disembark.
Newly-arrived refugees rest as they wait to be registered at the Ifo camp in northern Kenya.
"I fled from my home in Kismayu last week. I will never go back ," she declares.
For months, she persevered as ten of her close relatives were gunned down by Al-Shabaab, a terrorist group that controls swathes of Somalia.
"A few weeks ago, a group of youths stopped me and decreed that the material of my bui bui (veil worn by Muslim women) was not heavy enough. They arrested and locked me up for hours," Khadija recalls.
After three more arrests and whipping, she sold all her belongings and headed for Kenya.
As she waits to be registered, she is living at Ifo, one of three camps which make up Daadab.
The other two are Dagahaley and Hagadera.
If she is lucky, Khadija will join an estimated 271,000 of her countrymen and women who are currently residing in the camps. The entire settlement has a population of 289,000 souls.
According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the fighting in Somalia has caused a steady flow of people into Kenya. More than 1,000 Somalis are arriving in the camps weekly.
The UN body said this year alone, more than 37,000 people have crossed the border into the camps.
However, conditions at the camps are deplorable. Firewood supply is rapidly diminishing, posing unprecedented problems to UNHCR, which has ran out cash.
UNHCR’s spokesman Mr Emanuel Nyabera says the camps are congested as they were originally meant to accommodate only 90,000 people.
"We are having a serious problem as we can no longer cope with the high number of refugees coming in," Nyabera explains.
In handouts to journalists, the organisation said maternal mortality was high, with 298 deaths per 100,000 people.
"Cultural practices commonly prevent women receiving the appropriate care in a timely manner. For instance, caesarean birth is usually not accepted and as a result, many women die because of breech babies," it said.
Awareness about HIV/Aids is low, and few know how to protect themselves from infection. Poor sanitation also exposes refugees to disease as there is a shortage of 39,000 toilets.
A child prepares a meal for her family at Kakuma refugee camp in Turkana Photos: Amos Kareithi Thuku/Standard
So grim is the picture that the UNHCR chief executive, Antonio Guterres jetted into the country last week to assess the situation.
After being conducted round Ifo, Guterres expressed dismay at the conditions there.
Hovels dot all the major roads leading in and out of Ifo. Every available space has been taken over by shanties.
Cases of sexual violence have also been reported.
"We have not been able to offer dignified services to the refugees here," Guterres comments.
Tired of waiting to be allotted spaces to erect their tents, some refugees have resorted to grabbing available space.
Somalis say they are tired of atrocities committed by Al-Shabaab. Last month, the insurgents attacked a hotel in the capital, Mogadishu, and killed up to 30 people, including six MPs.
During a meeting with refugee representatives, Guterres was shocked to learn that some people had been exploiting the refugees by charging fees for services that should be free.
However, there is a glimmer of hope following several projects aimed at making life better.
A new expansion phase has started. Several boreholes have been sunk and a school is under construction.
Once complete in a few months, the new phase will accommodate an additional 80,000 people. However, this is still not enough.
As busloads of desperate refugees arrive daily, Somalis who have been at Dadaab for more than 20 years are longing for peace in their country.