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Somalian ruins greet Ramadan
New Straits Times
Sunday, July 22, 2012

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SUFFERING: More than a million internally displaced citizens are housed in refugee camps in war-torn Somalia

IN A war-torn environment, glue sniffing may be an escape for some. In Somalia, where I spent about a week recently, glue sniffing among children barely out of their teens was an everyday occurrence.

Abdul Rahman is 14 and a direct product of the civil war in Somalia that has ruined the country. I was taken to visit his "home", located at a broken-down building no longer fit for normal accommodation.

The teenager has no choice. His mother had died. When asked about his father, the boy said: "I don't know." Such is life in this country dubbed as the Horn of Africa. It has long, beautiful beaches with the deep blue Indian Ocean offering a serene contrast to the ruins on the mainland.

Having seen no peace in his entire life, Rahman sees very little future for himself, if any. Glue sniffing was a way out of his predicament, one that he shares with other children of the same age group.

A local non-government organisation took the initiative to round up these children and house them in this ramshackle house. For now, glue sniffing is no more their daily habit.

Zinc and wooden frames act as partitions, separating the living quarters from a makeshift classroom, a kitchen and a common area where the children assemble and meet visitors.

Rahman was asked to read verses from the Quran, which he dutifully did. And he did it well. All learning is by memorising the verses taught by the elders. In Somalia, books and stationery are considered priceless items.

It's quite common to see Somalian children able to recite the whole Quran within three years. It's the same with other lessons.

The children eat only once a day. I later found out that this was also the case with other victims of the civil war. In refugee camps, the homeless are also fed only once.

Food is provided by well-wishers, mostly from overseas. Many humanitarian non-governmental organisations operate in Somalia, a country of almost 10 million.

One of the cooks at a camp I visited said he serves 5,000 refugees with some bean soup and a dish made from sorghum.

But no food is served on Friday because it is a day of rest for the cooks and relief workers. The refugees fend for themselves on that day, mostly with whatever they have come up with during the week.

Somalia's problems started with the assassination of its president, Abdi Rashid Ali Shermake, in 1969. Things got worse when it went to war with one of its neighbours, Ethiopia.

It lost that war and its president, Siad Barre, fled the country, leaving it to be ravaged by guerilla groups, most of whom were clan-based.

I have seen the physical destruction in places like Bosnia and Gaza. But they are not as bad as in Somalia, where the citizens, referred to as internally displaced persons (Somalia has more than a million of them), seek refuge in makeshift tents made of tattered plastic sheets and bits of old planks and twigs.

In Rahman's case, the semi-ruined concrete building offers him some respite from the heat. But with a leaking roof and with the sand as his floor, the future looks bleak for this lad.

But when the children gathered to welcome visitors, their eyes lit up. They sang the national anthem enthusiastically. They read verses from the Quran with gusto, hoping that the visitors would offer some donations to ease their burden. Most did.

One cannot but compare the fate of these children with ours, who know no hunger and have comfortable homes with supportive and caring parents, by and large.

Our children have Playstations as toys, handphones to communicate, and proper schools and colleges to get a real education.

Truly, we are blessed in more ways than one.

Years of civil war and anarchy have all but taken Somalia's soul. Gun-toting individuals and militias roam the country. The gun, mostly the Russian-made AK-47, is the law in Somalia.

I left Rahman and his inmates after spending an hour at their home. It was heart-wrenching to see these children with little to live for. The Somalian children need everything from pens and pencils to food and clean water. Let's help them.


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