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Walking for weeks to reach Mogadishu's sprawling camps

Somalia, August 19, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Benti and her family walked for more than 30 days to reach the displacement camp in Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, where they now live in this makeshift shelter alongside thousands of others. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Benti with her daughter Crokina (in pink) and son Mohammad Duk. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

I spent several days visiting the camps in Mogadishu where Mercy Corps is working to provide assistance to people who have been displaced by the famine, as well as years of civil war. There are almost 1.5 million displaced people in Somalia — and one-third of them, almost half a million people, are living in camps in Mogadishu.

Over the past 60 days alone, an estimated 100,000 Somalis — driven by drought and famine — have fled to Mogadishu in search of food, water, shelter and other assistance. Tens of thousands of people are moving in search of assistance and temporarily settle anywhere they can find a little space to set up a makeshift shelter.

For these displaced families, life is that of absolute destitution as they face a myriad of challenges ranging from thirst, hunger, exposure to the harsh sun, severe malnutrition, cholera, disease and more. Tens of thousands of people have already died.

Benti's story

Benti is the mother of three children. She lives with her husband and kids in a camp in Mogadishu. They left their home in Badara where they used to raise animals — walking for more than 30 days to reach Mogadishu.

“Because of hunger we had to leave,” explains Benti. “All of our animals died from the drought. It was too difficult. When two of my neighbors died from hunger, we knew we had to leave to survive.”

Benti and her husband heard that aid might be available in Mogadishu, so they set out on their long walk with just their children and the clothes they wore. Along the way, farmers gave them small amounts of food so they could make the journey.

They have been living in the camp for two weeks. Their shelter was originally made of scraps of cardboard and materials they collected from the street. But yesterday they received a plastic sheet in a distribution at the camp. The only item they own is an old beaten-up jerry can they use to collect water. They have to walk almost 20 minutes to reach the water source and the water is not suitable for drinking — but they have no other choice.

Everyone in the family has health problems, mainly stemming from the dirty water they drink and the poor sanitation conditions at the camp. Mercy Corps’ assessment found that the camps are totally overcrowded, and in most of the new camps there is a complete lack of clean water and sanitation facilities. Most camps don’t have any toilet facilities. Improper human waste disposal is causing food and water contamination and a massive cholera outbreak.

Benti's children

Benti’s five-year-old son, Mohammad Duk also has the measles. When he lifts his shirt I can see his stomach and neck are covered in the tell-tale rash of measles. Her daughter, Crokina, has a cough — a typical symptom of measles, although it is not clear if she has the measles or a respiratory infection, or possibly both.

The children have not been to the doctor and are not taking any medicine.

“We don’t have money for medical care,” explains Benti. "We have no food, how can we afford to pay hospital fees when we can’t even eat?”

Measles cases seem to be everywhere in the camps. Most Somali children have not been immunized because humanitarian assistance was very limited for the past several years due to insecurity. Now the measles virus is spreading rapidly through the camps where the people all live in extremely crowded conditions.

The situation in the camps is so unbearable it is hard to imagine how the Somali people manage. Yet, almost everyone I met said they were glad they came to the camps.

“The camps may be terrible, but staying in the famine-stricken villages is sure death,” said Benti.