Abubakar Mohamed Mahamud: ‘People in Dadaab are broken’
June 20, 2012
Abu, as everyone knows him, has worked with Somali refugees in northeastern Kenya since the war in Somalia began more than 20 years ago. Originally a nurse specialising in nutrition, today he is MSF’s deputy field coordinator. He, more than anyone, understands the problems faced by the almost half a million Somalis struggling to survive in the refugee camps of Dadaab.
“I started working with Somali refugees in 1991, at Liboi refugee camp, next to the border with Somalia. MSF was responsible for the medical screening of the refugees. There were huge numbers of refugees arriving daily. They were severely malnourished and some were wounded with gunshots.
The living conditions for the refugees were terrible. There was nothing there: no water, no toilets and no decent infrastructure. There were several outbreaks of dysentery. MSF was running an emergency hospital and several feeding centres within the camp.
Shooting in the camp at night
The overall security was also very poor; it was a very dangerous situation. There was a lot of shooting inside the camp, especially at night. The refugees were traumatised by the violence they had lived with in Somalia. Many had lost their relatives and had children suffering from malnutrition. They were really desperate. It was a tragic situation.”
As more and more refugees crossed the border, and the security situation got worse, three sprawling refugee camps were set up in the desert, 80 km away, with space for 90,000 people, named after the nearby town of Dadaab.
Like a city with markets and schools
“I left MSF and Dadaab for a couple of years, and came back in 1994 to work in Dagahaley [one of Dadaab’s three camps]. The situation then was totally different. It was relatively calm and stable. The refugees were getting used to their environment and finding ways to cope, and the infrastructure was much better. There was enough water, shelter and food. Life was beginning to improve. There were markets, schools, and the camps looked more like a Kenyan city.
MSF was providing primary and secondary healthcare in the three camps, but there were very few epidemic outbreaks or malnutrition at that time. I continued working for MSF until 2003 when the projects were handed over to other organisations.”
The period of relative stability in Dadaab came to an end in 2006, when renewed fighting in Somalia, combined with flooding, drought and widespread hunger, caused many more people to leave their homes. More than 1.5 million people are thought to be displaced within Somalia, while an estimated 917,000 Somalis have sought refuge abroad.
No space for newcomers
“When I came back to Dadaab in 2009, the situation was totally different again. The number of refugees coming to the camps was overwhelming. There was no space left to house them. The camp was overcrowded and the infrastructure was the same as ten years earlier. People did not have enough water, latrines, food or shelter. New refugees either had to go and live with a relative or friend, pay for a plot of land from another refugee, or settle outside the camp.
Registering for food was also very slow, and it took a long time to receive the food rations provided to the refugees. Those that had families already living in the camps had to rely on their relatives to share food with them. More and more people settled outside the camps where they were left without infrastructure or protection. It was only after years of lobbying that two more camps were opened during the summer of 2011.
As refugees continued to arrive, the situation became more and more acute. The overcrowding, the lack of decent infrastructure and the limited amount of water available led to sicknesses like diarrhoea and cholera. At the start of 2011, we saw more and more refugees coming who were suffering from malnutrition. MSF’s existing hospital in Dagahaley camp was soon overcrowded and we had to increase our capacity to treat the numbers of children. We also faced a measles epidemic. It was a very serious situation.
‘People in Dadaab are broken’
MSF is also providing mental healthcare to the refugees. Many are suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder and trauma. They left everything behind and came empty-handed to Dadaab, only to find that there was no land, no basic necessities and that the living conditions were very difficult. Some could not cope anymore.
For the people who have lived in the camp for 20 years, the mental health programme is also important. They see no chance of future improvement, and some don’t have any hope left. People living in Dadaab are broken.”
Dangers increase, services suspended
The security situation in and around the camps deteriorated dramatically in October 2011, with the kidnapping of two MSF staff members and a spate of explosions and shootings. Since then, all non-essential services in the camps have been suspended.
Newly arrived refugees are no longer registered, and have to either find space with friends or relatives or fend for themselves. While tokens for food rations are being distributed, new arrivals do not receive shelter materials or any other essentials. MSF is continuing to provide medical care for the refugees, albeit with a reduced team.
“MSF has continued to work in the camps, with Kenyan and refugee staff, providing both primary and secondary healthcare to the new refugees. However, should there be an emergency situation like the 2011 malnutrition crisis, it will be very difficult to cope. The international community needs to find a solution for this desperate situation. They need to understand the complexity of the situation and the desperation in which people are living.
Crisis will not end soon
The crisis in Somalia is not going to end soon. History is repeating itself and this is a never-ending problem. What I see today is what I saw in 1991: desperate people who fled their wartorn country, leaving everything behind, only to end up in a camp where living conditions are below what is humanly dignified.”
What I see today is what I saw in 1991: desperate people who fled their wartorn country, leaving everything behind, only to end up in a camp where living conditions are below what is humanly dignified.