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Somalia Refugees Lose Hope of Going Home

September 2, 2006

DADAAB, Kenya (AP) _ When Ahmed Noor arrived at the Dadaab refugee camp in far northeastern Kenya, he figured he would be here a month or two, until civil war died down in Somalia and he could go home.

Fifteen years later, Noor doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to leave this desolate and wind-swept refugee camp, now home to more than 130,000 people just 50 miles from the Somali border.

``I came here when I was a teenager, 18 years old,″ Noor said. ``Now I’m married. I have five daughters. Think about that. How much time has passed.″

For the Somali refugees who have been in Dadaab longest, the recent takeover of much of southern Somalia by an Islamic militia has sapped any lingering hope they had of going home.

And while the religious movement and Somalia’s weak, U.N.-backed interim government held talks this weekend in Sudan, there is little optimism. The refugees watch new arrivals stream in _ 18,000 so far this year _ with the air of experience.

``The people who come here now, they think they are going back to Somalia very soon, or that they’ll be resettled in another country,″ said Qarad Ismal Sagal, a 34-year-old woman who also has been at Dadaab for 15 years. ``But I know I don’t have a home in Somalia. I am without hope.″

The three camps that make up Dadaab were established in 1991 after Somali warlords toppled dictator Siad Barre and carved the country into armed camps ruled by clan law.

The most recent bloodshed, sparked by the rise of the militant Islamic movement in the south, has driven an average of 100 Somalis to Dadaab every day, according the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

``If the current rate of arrival continues, we can expect another 12,000 refugees by the end of the year,″ the UNHCR said in a statement.

The refugees, most of them Muslim, live in small huts fashioned out of thin branches draped with cloth or tarp. Little grows beneath the withering equatorial sun but a sprinkling of scrubby trees.

Many longtime refugees lament the fact that they cannot leave the camp to try to make a life in Kenya. The government has strict rules requiring them to stay in camps, arguing that integration into Kenyan life is not a ``durable solution″ for the refugees.

But returning to Somalia, with its violent instability and poverty, is not an option either. Resettlement to a third country, such as the United States or Australia, is a beacon of hope _ but it rarely happens. Just 342 refugees went to the U.S. last year.

For those who were born and raised in Dadaab, the camp has been their only home.

``The only place they know are the four corners of this camp,″ said Nemia Temporal, head of the UNHCR office in Dadaab. ``To some extent we encourage them to be in touch with their culture, to belong to one culture _ for whenever there is a plan for them to go back.″

Abdullahi Aden Muhume, who came to Dadaab when he was 9, says he has only a weak connection to his native country.

``I have forgotten all about Somalia because I have spent my lifetime in this camp,″ said Muhume, now 23.

His goal is simply to improve his life in Dadaab now that he has finished secondary school. He wants to continue his education, but the camp offers few opportunities.

Sagal, too, is resigned to making her life in the camp instead of pining for Mogadishu, the Somali capital and the last place she saw her parents when they fled a surge of violence after Barre’s fall. Sagal says she went one way, her parents another.

She looks back fondly on Mogadishu, saying she used to run a small kiosk that sold meat, fish and milk.

But since she was last there, Mogadishu has degenerated into a huge, looted shantytown. Public buildings have been dismantled brick by brick and people live in improvised tents on the old foundations after being driven from their homes by violence.

Most families in the city cannot afford to send their children to the few formal schools that exist, so they attend ad hoc training led by local clerics. An entire generation has little knowledge of the outside world _ much like many young residents of Dadaab.

``I am just trying to improve my life here, in the camp,″ Sagal said, tugging nervously on her headscarf.

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