Africa

Do Somalis in Kenya's Dadaab camp want to go home?

  • 19 November 2013
  • From the section Africa

Dadaab feels more like a city than a refugee camp; or maybe more correctly, a collection of medium-sized towns spread out over a sun-baked area of northern Kenya.

Shops and stalls line the unpaved roads, where hotels and factories, bars and blacksmiths' workshops vie for space.

The United Nations is preparing to carry out a survey in Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp, to find out how many of the nearly half a million Somalis who live there are prepared to go back to their country.

This comes a week after Kenya, Somalia and the UN signed an agreement to begin the voluntary repatriation of refugees.

The survey may take months to complete and is likely to be met with little enthusiasm

"There is total insecurity in Somalia and we're not intending to go back to that place," fumes a man with a hennaed beard as he emerges from a cafe.

His name is Ibrahim Sambul, and he has lived in Dadaab since 1992.

"Our kids, if they go back there, everyone would get hold of a gun and start fighting for al-Shabab."

About 2,500 children get a free education at Dadaab's Unity Primary School

That is precisely the kind fiery talk that has led some Kenyan politicians to accuse the camp of links to the Somali Islamist militant group that carried out the Westgate attack in which 67 people died.

Militants stormed the shopping centre in the capital, Nairobi, over four days in September.

Addressing the Kenyan government, Mr Sambul quickly adds: "All Somalis are not terrorists."

'Mad idea'

Security has improved in Somalia over the past few years, there is no doubt about that.

Territory controlled by al-Shabab has shrunk, as African Union troops alongside Somali government forces have pushed the militants out of towns and villages they once held.

But Mr Sambul's reluctance to return reflects a view widely held in Dadaab.

The UN refugee agency is likely to offer cash incentives as well as food and provisions to those refugees who are willing to return.

Yet a camp official told the BBC that fewer than 100 people had so far expressed an interest in their repatriation programme.

Out of a refugee population of around 400,000 - no-one is sure of the exact figure because there are so many unregistered refugees - that is a very low take-up rate indeed.

One of the reasons people want to stay is education.

At the Unity Primary School a mixed group of students, boys and girls, are learning mathematics, in English.

Around 2,500 children get a free education at the school, one of many in the camp.

Most parents know that Somalia is currently unable to provide that opportunity.

Mohammed Abdi Shamsudin arrived at Dadaab from Mogadishu in 1991.

He now has 21 children from three wives.

For him and his family Dadaab is not just a refugee camp. For better or for worse, it is home.

"When I talk to my children about going back to Somalia, they get scared," he says.

"They think it's a mad idea. They can't get work here in Kenya but they can't go back to Somalia. So the only hope they have is education."

Football match shooting

We drove to one of the newer settlements in the camp; unlike Mr Shamsudin, most here are more recent arrivals.

It is an area with a troubled reputation. On 17 October, a group of local men were watching a football match in a communal TV-shack known as the "cinema".

At around 21:00 masked gunmen burst in, spraying bullets indiscriminately into the crowd.

More than 400,000 people live in Dadaab
Faisal Omar's cinema was attacked by gunmen last month when showing a football match

No-one was killed, but six were wounded.

We met some of them still nursing their scars outside the cinema.

"We are very afraid," said Faisal Omar, the owner, who said he now opens only during the day.

He could not say who exactly had carried out the attack, but he was not the first person we met to refer, obliquely, to al-Shabab.

"Maybe it's like what happened at Westgate," he said. "Without asking you something, they start shooting at you. It happens."

Incidents like these occur less frequently today than they did a year or two ago.

But it is clear from the reaction you get when you mention al-Shabab that people in the camp are afraid.

One Kenyan MP recently called Dadaab a "nursery for terrorists".

Most here would dispute that and they are not planning to leave in a hurry.

On one street, a builder's merchant was busy unloading timber.

It will be used to build yet more structures in this camp that seems to just keep on expanding.

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