When we set out to visit the community of Dhobley, Somalia, it came after a security assessment from several people, and the knowledge that whatever the security may tell us, it’s still a dangerous place to go.
The militant group Al Shabaab, which has ties with Al Qaeda, was pushed farther back into Somalia a few months ago, helping Dhobley maintain some order. Security forces from Kenya and Somalia’s transitional government continue to make gains and reclaim territory. Still, news reports I’ve read indicate that Al Shabaab fighters are not very far outside of the community. And it’s clear that Al Shabaab is not far from the minds of the refugees.
When I talk with families fleeing the famine, I hear one thing again and again. It’s not just hunger that has driven families to leave. It’s the lawlessness that has flourished in the failed state of Somalia. I’ve heard horror stories of the innocent being victimized by evil men in unspeakable ways.
Even if these families had moderate success with their businesses or farming in Somalia, nearly all did it while living in fear. With the painful backdrop of poor security, the famine was the inescapable problem that pushed them over the edge, sending them on an uncertain journey for food and water. In order to affect long-term change, security must improve.
Heading to the nearly unmarked border
On a day we traveled to Somalia to work, we left World Concern’s base for famine response in Dadaab, Kenya. This town is home to the rapidly-growing complex of refugee camps you’ve seen on the news, as well as a large UN compound. It takes about two hours to drive from Dadaab to Dhobley, just across the Somalia border. Like other agencies, we have elected to have a security detail join us on the road.
The road to Somalia has no signs, just tire tracks in deep sand on a twisting road through scrub brush. Before reaching the border, we had to stop in the Kenyan border town of Liboi on our way to Dhobley, to get our passports stamped, knowing that there was no similar immigration checkpoint in Somalia.
The border has two non-descript markers, short unmarked concrete obelisks set along the road, in a section of sand and scrub that looks like any other. But that was our sign to stop. Our Kenyan vehicles could go no farther. Soon, after we called our contacts in Somalia, an ancient small Nissan transport van arrived, and we switched vehicles, from our Kenyan trucks, to the rented Somali van. Inside were Somali men who run a partner agency in Dadaab, and they would be leading us around town.
Gunfire seems normal
Dhobley was filled with livestock searching for a drink, and small shops like I have seen in other more established towns in Kenya. What was unusual was the military presence. Hundreds of young TFG soldiers dressed in green fatigues held old assault rifles and wandered around, on foot and in the back of pick-up trucks.
Every so often, I’d hear gunshots. Who was firing? I’m really not sure. I’d bet, though, that with no real functioning government, many people are armed. The crack of gunshots are common in Dhobley. People are saying, “Hi, how are you doing!” or “I am angry!” or some other message. But what we did not hear was prolonged gunfire to indicate an actual fight. And so, strangely, I stopped flinching when I heard a shot, and it just became ambient noise.
No hospital, but a medical clinic
World Concern is joined in Dhobley with our partners at Medical Teams International, who work under World Concern in the response. One man and a woman are from Uganda, and usually work in that country. They are extremely talented folks with much relevant experience. Because of the crisis, they’ve been called up. Another man is a physician from Oregon who specializes at diagnosing rare diseases, along with a nurse who is an expert in disaster medical care. Both of them have been in about seven missions with MTI.
The MTI team saw patients in a small clinic. The one story building is under construction, and helps the community compensate for the loss of a hospital. Locals say that Al Shabaab commandeered the hospital when it controlled the town, using the building as a base of operations. During the fight to reclaim Dhobley, the building was more or less destroyed.
Searching for working water wells
While the MTI team saw patients, a team from World Concern drove from water source to water source in town to see how the systems were functioning. After evaluating several pumping stations, we see they need work, and form a plan for how to help. With a large population of displaced people, the demand for food and water has increased. We also notice that people are using a watering hole for livestock as their source of drinking water. This is a guaranteed way to spread disease.
We’re also working here to ensure the hungry are fed. By using a voucher system, those in need are able to buy food from local businesses. We find that this is safer than trucking food down a road that is also home to bandits. And by buying from local vendors, we help the economy.
It is a safe bet that Dhobley receives many more refugees in the coming months. The primary road to the Dadaab refugee camps passes right through Dhobley. With continued unrest elsewhere in Somalia, and the growing famine, more families will decide to leave their homes, and search for a new life in Kenya as refugees.
Working for sustainability – with an eye on who’s really hurting
By helping communities with food, water and more, World Concern is working to help keep Somalis in Somalia, if possible, and out of the overburdened camps. And in our work with communities, we’re also helping ensure those who live in these towns on the border can survive the flood of travelers.
It is a complex problem, happening in a dangerous area, and it will get worse before it gets better. It is a difficult logistical and political equation to ensure long-term stability that will allow us to do the long-term transformational work that the community really needs.
What remains consistent, however, is the desperation from families who find themselves caught in the middle. It doesn’t matter that the security is rotten, and that bad people still roam freely here. The fact is that these families – men, women, boys and girls – need the basics of life. They need food and water, and without it, they will die.
Our goal is to be here long-term, to help the communities become more self sufficient, and less vulnerable. We want to see the communities transform. But the reality for now is that we are in a life-or-death crisis.
With those who are supporting us, we are able to make a small difference in this big disaster, making sure that families we touch will make it through this famine alive.
Learn and give: www.worldconcern.org/crisis