Our team pulled out of Dadaab shortly after breakfast, on the road to Somalia. It’s a dry, dusty road, with thorny bush on either side. The road itself is badly rutted, so weave along the ditch, following two tire tracks in the sand. Occasionally, we jump up on the road and dip down the embankment to the other side, continuing the weaving through acacias, sand flying in little rooster tails behind us.
Following closely is our security escort, a good natured sergeant in the Administration Police, and three kids so green they barely shave. They get sent to the border fresh out of school, to work them in for a few years. Now, they chase behind us through the thorny wasteland.
The only sign of life are the dik-diks, meercats, and the birds. The birds are also a sign of death. The road is littered with cattle carcasses, at least one every kilometer, and the Marabou storks gather around them. I have never seen so many Marabou storks before. They are the undertakers of the animal kingdom, overdressed in their black coats, strutting awkwardly around, and omnipresent at a funeral. As we pull into Liboi, I notice the storks are bigger than the goats, or even a small child. And they are everywhere.
While we take some tea in Liboi, it starts to rain. Irony. Rain in a drought. But this isn’t really rain. I only notice it on my specs. It’s such a fine drizzle, my clothes don’t get wet, and the ground is no less dusty.
We head on, through a few checkpoints, and we are there. It comes as a bit of surprise, really. Our escort actually had to pull us over, so we didn’t cross the line. The Somalia border is signified by a stone. “That tree is Somali,” said our guide, “and this tree is a Kenyan.” As we waited for our vehicle from Somalia, we walked past the stone and looked around.
This was it. I was in Somalia. There were bullets in some of the trees, a battle had been fought here. One of the soldiers handed me a shell. “Your souvenir,” he said.
I returned to Liboi for a few hours, while I waited for the team in Somalia. At the borehole, warthogs jostled with goats for water. They told me even giraffes and gazelles came into town to get water now. “What about the lions?” I asked. There are about 20 out there, was the response, but they haven’t come into town. Later I met a refugee, who had seen a man killed by a lion attack in his travels.
I visited the school. It was Saturday, but the boarding students were still there, sleeping through the heat in their dorms with insufficient mattresses, hanging their laundry to dry from the broken panes of glass in the windows. Three hundred boys aged 12 and up, their parents nomadic, trying to finish primary school. They have 2 toilets, neither has a door. During the week the school swells to 800, and with their pipes broken, they can’t afford the water required for the kids to wash their hands before meals.
In a small hotel, I found 100 refugees sleeping in the carport. They were waiting for evening to continue their journey. My guide told me to take their picture – that they said it was okay. The women covered their faces and looked away. They asked if I had any food. I didn’t – not for 100 people – and I felt like an idiot. The children all have watery diarrhea. I urge them, when they get to the camp, to take all their children to the clinic. “They will help you in Dadaab,” I said. I hope I’m right. I take the pictures, get in the car, and drive off. This is the part I hate.
When I met the team, they seemed a bit stunned. “It’s different over there. The ratio of soldiers to civilians is 4:1. Everyone has a gun.” And yet, the situation is really the same. Not enough food, not enough water, and not enough health care. They visited a hospital with most of the equipment intact, but holes in the wall from mortars and bullets. The roof had been destroyed in parts, and other walls were cracked and falling. An NGO is subsidizing water costs there, so at least the water is not too expensive.
We headed back to Dadaab as the sun began to set. Along the way we met a refugee family and their goats. “We left Kismayu 30 days ago,” they tell us. “People are starving to death there.”
The family of nine sleeps where night finds them, all their belongings on a donkey cart. They lost all their cows, and decided to leave before their goats died too. The woman is pregnant, and the oldest child is about 12. “Many of our people are going to Dadaab. Being in the camp is better than the drought.”
I found two packs of biscuits and a carton of juice in the boot. Our guide, a better man than I, gave them fare for the bus he knew was coming, so the mother and children could ride for 50 kilometers. The red sun slipped below the horizon into night.
World Concern is one of the first NGOs to be able to help in southern Somalia since Al-Shabaab, the militant group that controls the area, lifted a ban on humanitarian aid groups coming in. Learn more about our response and donate at www.worldconcern.org/crisis.