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Below: Young mother in the Dadaab System

Dadaab refers to a group of three camps – Ifo, Dagahaley, and Hagadera – in Kenya’s remote eastern zone near the Somali border. Walda Camp, the fourth camp in the Dadaab system, was first closed in 1992. Most of the people in Walda at that time were relocated to Kakuma and other camps. Most of Walda's people from Ethiopia were repartriated during the closure.

Before the camps were set up, the region surrounding Dadaab Town was populated by nomadic camel herders. There is little rainfall, ground water, or vegetation beyond the scruffy trees that sprinkle the landscape. The camps were set up around Dadaab beginning in 1991 when civil war erupted on a grand scale in Somalia (16 rival factions were involved). The war, along with a prolonged drought, forced more than 900,000 Somalis to flee to neighboring republics. Approximately 400,000 of them, many of whom were in a serious state of exhaustion and starvation, took refuge in Kenya. Since then, a majority have returned to their country. However, some 131,000 Somalis remain in Kenya, and 110,000 are in Dadaab, along with some Sudanese, Ugandans, and about 3,000 Ethiopians.

Visually, the camps form a patchwork of different kinds of shelter, as people from the same nationality cluster together. The Somali dwellings are mostly round turkuls with cardboard and blue plastic United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) sheeting to cover the frame, which is made out of long thin sticks that are bent and tied. The Sudanese have mud and wattle huts and furniture that is made from bound sticks. They usually have a bit of a courtyard. The few Ugandans have fenced plots with vegetables growing and mud fish hanging out to dry. The Ethiopians also have fenced-off, locked properties with mud and wattle homes which are decorated with posters or Orthodox icons.

Kakuma Camp: One of the largest in the African Union

People cook outside their homes using a jiko, which is a metal stove with grill grating on top formed from pounding used cooking oil drums into shape. The meals of the refugees also reflect different traditions, with the Somalis boiling pots of spaghetti, while the Ethiopians bake a type of bread.

Many of the homes are surrounded by “live fencing” -- transplanted thorn bushes that make a good substitute for razor wire fencing. In this way, the people try to establish some safety for themselves; however, security remains a major problem. The camps are in a remote, mainly unoccupied land that is hard to police. This, and their proximity to the Somali border where arms can easily be imported, makes them prime targets for bandits. Women are especially vulnerable because they must venture outside the camp in search of wood to keep their cooking fires burning. As the years have gone by and areas close to the camp have become deforested, women must venture farther and farther away to locate wood – up to 20 kilometers. When they are so far from camp, they are in danger of being assaulted by roving bandits.

However, assaults do not take place only at great distances from the camp, but at night violence often stalks the camp itself. Despite the banning of weapons, many of the refugees have guns; and fights break out among the different groups. Even the police have been afraid to go into the camps at night. The UNHCR has strengthened the police force, purchasing more vehicles to patrol the land. It has also initiated a program that delivers wood to the women in the camp relieving many of the obligation to forage afar, while a German relief organization has supported a program to increase the planting of “live fencing” for protection. Finally, Kenya has been encouraged to set up a mobile court to attempt to punish attackers when incidents occur.

Once the immediate needs of the hungry and exhausted people who came in 1991 were satisfied, camp life began to settle down into a pattern that continues to this day. The organization CARE is in charge of the food that is distributed twice a month, while MSF is in charge of medical relief with therapeutic and supplementary feeding. Small markets have been established within the camps where surplus dry food rations from CARE can be exchanged for camel – and sometimes goat – meat and fresh vegetables. Tailors and barbers ply their trades. Educated townspeople who can speak English (primarily Ethiopians) volunteer their services to the UN, CARE and MSF. Others work as laborers for the aid agencies. An Arabic school was started; CARE began to run schools for non-Muslims; a mosque was built; the Ethiopians built an Orthodox church. The market became the congregating point for the men, most of whom have little to do. Older men sit around, talk, and chew miraa – a mild stimulant that is chewed with gum.

Below: Demonstarting how to use an African Solar Stove

Women bear much of the responsibility for maintaining camp life. They collect water from the well, care for the children, gather firewood, watch out for poisonous snakes, and prepare meals. In fact, the life of women is very hard. Young women do much the same work as their mothers, and many teenagers are married, often to older men. In recent years, as the hope of repatriation has dimmed, people have begun to get involved in community development efforts. More women and girls are becoming aware of the importance of participating in programs for their own benefit. These include a range of income-producing activities in various crafts such as weaving, with basic materials purchased through a revolving community loan scheme. Strong anti-rape groups are also at work in the camps. A pilot project on the prevention of sexual violence against refugee women was launched in May 1999. The program focuses on social counseling, as well as physical security. It seems that slowly women’s role is beginning to change in this isolated society.

Although UNHCR mounts periodic attempts at repatriation, these have not been very successful among the Somalis. Armed clashes among clan militia in southern Somalia have prevented the refugees’ return. Furthermore, their chances of going to other countries are slim. Although resettlement applications to third countries (such as the United States and Australia) have been made, very few have been accepted. It seems that, for the future, life will be bound by the live fencing that surrounds the Dadaab camps.