Among Somalia's famine victims, some must walk and some can take the bus
LIBOI, Kenya // Even among refugees fleeing famine-stricken Somalia there are the "haves" and "have-nots": those who cross the border in a battle for survival and those who can pay for a car.
"I paid $150 to be brought here from Mogadishu," said Abshira Abdullahi, speaking in the courtyard of a guesthouse after emerging from a crowded mini-van.
For most of the destitute families trekking through rebel-controlled southern Somalia, their livelihoods destroyed by the triple shock of conflict, the worst drought in decades and a lack of food aid, that is a princely sum beyond dreams.
Abdullahi left her five children in the care of her younger brother, saying life had become unbearable in Mogadishu's Madina district, near the capital's old quarter, where once-majestic colonial facades now tumble into the turquoise ocean.
Two decades of civil war in Somalia have reduced much of the city to rubble. An insurgency started in 2007 still rages on, with almost daily tit-for-tat artillery fire and gun battles between Al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants and Somali forces.
"Life in Mogadishu was like being under house arrest," said Abdullahi, a 30-year-old divorcee.
The United Nations has declared famine in two regions of Somalia and says 3.7 million people in the country are going hungry because of drought.
In a report for countries sending aid, the UN's umbrella humanitarian agency, OCHA, said the crisis was expected to continue to worsen during 2011, with the whole of the south slipping into famine.
The sandy, windswept town of Liboi, a small trading centre patrolled by marabou storks less than 20km from the border, was Abdullahi's final stopping point on her way to the overflowing Dadaab refugee camp 80km deeper inside Kenya.
In early 2007, Kenya officially closed its frontier with Somalia, marked outside Liboi by a single concrete pillar and two makeshift military road-blocks, in an effort to block the movement of Somalian Islamist rebels.
The closure forced the shutdown of a transit centre in Liboi where the UN refugee agency screened, registered and handed out food rations to incoming asylum seekers before transporting them to Dadaab.
Several lodges have sprung up in the dusty alleyways behind the main street, owned by Liboi's bigwigs, who see money to be made from the wealthier refugees before their final push to Dadaab.
Business has boomed with the recent influx of refugees. A local administrator, speaking in the courtyard of another guesthouse, where as many as 10 family members were squeezed into a single room with three beds, said: "We run this as a private lodge."
A young boy collecting cash said the charge was 100 Kenyan shillings (Dh4) per person, though for a couple with five children this was discounted to 400 shillings.
Over mugs of sweet milky tea, some residents muttered that it was not surprising that some officials were reluctant to throw their weight behind re-opening the transit centre, given that it would probably kill the lodges' business.
Hassan Mahmoud Mohammed would have welcomed a UN reception centre.
His family sat exhausted in the grounds of Liboi's clinic, the children's feet deeply cracked after dragging their scrawny limbs for 15 days from southern Somalia's Lower Shabelle region, the famine's centre.
Mr Mohammed, who has seven children, told Reuters: "We walked up to 12 hours a day without anything to drink, no water, no milk, only what people we passed gave us.
"The children don't understand what is going on. At least we're told here we'll get assistance," he said
But he was wrong. Apart from water from the town's borehole, there would be no help until they reach at Dadaab, a sprawling tent and shack city of more than 400,000 people and the world's largest refugee camp.
A local resident, Adow Noor Burl, said: "They're needy and vulnerable people but what more can we give them? There's also a drought here. It would be too much of a burden." .
Moments later, a gang of loud-mouthed youths kicked Mohammed and his family out of the clinic, demanding they take their illnesses elsewhere.
Visiting aid workers watched as Mohammed and his children trudged wearily down the road to Dadaab.
While Mohammed asked for nothing more than food, water and safety for his family, Abdullahi, a bus ticket to Dadaab in hand, had grander expectations.
"Perhaps I will be resettled to Australia where I have family," she said.
Published: August 1, 2011 04:00 AM