Life Inside Somalia's Refugee Camps

The country's weak government struggles with how to help the people displaced by decades of war.
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Babaado IDP camp in Mogadishu, Somalia. (Armin Rosen)

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- At certain points, Mogadishu, longtime synonym for anarchy, terrorism, and urban warfare, is indistinguishable from many other cities in the developing world. Along Maka Al-Mukarama road, a former front line during Somalia's civil war years, new storefronts and sidewalks have turned the few remaining stripped or sandbagged buildings into isolated novelties, relics of a conflict that the city seems eager to leave behind.

In the avenue's median strip, there's a single, toppled solar-powered street lamp, a recent victim of the jihadi militant group Al Shabaab. But scores of others are still standing--towering, brand-new, and functional. Even in the former government quarter, where the bombed-out shells of former embassies and ministry buildings are still walled over with sandbags, there's evidence of a tentative recovery. So while the Turkish embassy might have been bombed a few days before my arrival in Mogadishu, the country is still going ahead with a handsome new complex in the devastated Lido Beach area, far from the heavily-guarded green zone where much of Somalia's international diplomacy currently takes place. The embassy is in an early stage of construction, but its concrete frame rises high above the ruins surrounding it. Along the oceanfront, where the destruction is almost total, there are now freshly paved sidewalks lining streets without a single habitable building. Two years earlier, when Al Shabaab and an African Union peacekeeping force fought for control of the city, a visit to the oceanfront would have been out of the question--and so would even the modest infrastructural improvements I witnessed. Even at its most pulverized, Mogadishu hints at its potential recovery.

This narrative of tentative progress, however, dissolves once you reach Mogadishu's refugee camps. In 2010, the southern part of Somalia was gripped with one of the worst famines the country had ever seen, a catastrophe that killed well over a quarter-million people and wiped out the region's mostly nomadic and livestock-based economy. It didn't help that the worst-hit areas were under Al Shabaab's control--and that the jihadis were curtailing the delivery of life-saving outside aid. In 2010, Mogadishu was home to the largest concentration of internally displaced persons on earth, a city-within-a-city of 400,000 refugees living in a spontaneous sprawl of rag tents on the city's devastated outskirts.

It's unknown exactly how many IDPs still remain, but during a recent visit to the city I saw a full horizon of tents, a wood frame and tarp metropolis that stretched for miles in each direction. There were tents on either side of the high, broken-glass-topped walls of ruined compounds, tents surrounding a gutted former military hospital, and tents on either side of the broad avenue former dictator Siad Barre constructed for military parades. Perhaps fittingly--it was Barre's oppressiveness and eventual overthrow that triggered the past 20 years of violence--Barre's former presidential reviewing box, a high, concrete structure where the dictator and his clique would watch the army march by, has collapsed in on itself.  Children play in its pulverized remains, and IDPs huddle in what little shade it provides. Tents surround it on all sides.

The IDP camps represent a unique challenge to Somalia's newly installed government. In an effort to disconnect them from Mogadishu's still-recovering urban fabric, the municipal government articulated plans to move the IDPs to a new, more manageable location farther from the center of town, shortly after the restoration of Somalia's central government in mid-2012. The government believes that resolving the IDP problem will bring a measure of order and control to Mogadishu, a city that's seen little of either since Barre's overthrow in 1991. But one glance at the tent city on Mogadishu's edges reveals how herculean that task would be, even if the local government actually had the capacity to move them.

If the IDPs are allowed to stay, however, it would be a tacit admission that the city, and perhaps the country's entire social framework, are still beyond the nascent government's control. The war is largely over in Mogadishu--but the IDPs provide a glimpse into the volatile status quo that's taken its place.

***

This Horsheed refugee camp is a tight-packed clutter of about 2,500 tents, although in greater Mogadishu's landscape of war ruins and white tarp, it's difficult to tell exactly where one camp ends and another begins. The camp sits alongside Barre's former parade route and proves how Al Shabaab never completely left Mogadishu. Even in broad daylight, our local handlers were only comfortable with us spending about 30 minutes there, and more outlying camps are considered no-go zones at any time of day.

One of the camp's leaders, sporting a loose, purple tunic and an orange-dyed beard, explained why his community was unable to return to their homes. "We are pastoralists, but even the farmers' fields have trees growing in the middle of them, because they haven't been maintained. They'd have to start again, too."

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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