By Neal Deles
CRS closed its office in Somalia in 1993 but continued to work there through our partners. It has been years since CRS sent an international staff back. I went to Mogadishu to meet our partners and see first-hand the work they do in the makeshift camps for those displaced by famine and conflict.
International aid workers here are mindful of heightened security concerns. We can only visit the camps for one hour and refrain from being out in the afternoon as that is when most of the violence happens. It was a long day visiting one of the many camps in Mogadishu and meeting partners and the people we serve.
Inside the secure compound of the Peace Hotel, I can hear the faint sound of the waves crashing on the shore and feel the cool sea breeze. No sounds of traffic except for the occasional airplane landing or taking off. It is not really a hotel as people would imagine, it is actually an old mansion that was owned by a former government minister. It now serves as the most secure accommodation and temporary office space for foreign aid workers in Mogadishu. I met an Italian I knew from Darfur and several Somali staff who have returned from the Netherlands and the U.S. to help rebuild their country.
In one camp, the camp leaders lamented that people come to visit them and write down what they need but nothing happens after the visit. “We don’t need you to write anymore, we need food, water, schools for our children, to recover our livelihoods. The rainy season has come and we need plastic sheets to cover our homes. We are tired.” I knew that we are sending the plastic sheets soon from Nairobi but I did not make any promises.
In another camp I met the women who received cash grants of $250 to set up their own small business.
“I was among the poorest women in this camp,” said one woman. I did not own anything. Now I have my small store thanks to the cash grant that I had received. I am able to send my children to school.”
Maryam, a mother of eight, left her village for Mogadishu a year ago at the height of the drought. She has not heard from her husband since she came to city. She found her way to this camp sandwiched between once stately mansions, one among many that litter Mogadishu. She is unable to go back home because of the current fighting between the government and the militias.
I visited her little store in between the two tents that serve as her family’s home. As I took her picture she looked so serious and seemed so uncomfortable that I asked my translator to ask her to smile and out of the blue she beamed and smiled the widest smile. She then pointed at what was on offer in her store one by one, telling me the price in Somali with hand signals, clapping her hands once and then putting out six fingers to tell me the most expensive item on sale was for 16,000 Somali shillings, around $8.
After more than three decades of war and conflict, the public school system is virtually non-existent in Mogadishu . Children have to go to private schools that charge $5 per month. All the displaced women I met who received the cash grants said their small businesses have enabled them to send their children to school. Many women in this camp have lost their husbands to the war, some have been divorced or do not know where their husbands are. They now have to care for as many as 4 to 8 children on their own.
I pondered those words as I walked under the trees in the Peace Hotel courtyard and felt the cool sea breeze off the nearby Indian ocean. I heard the call to prayer. And as I continued my slow walk, the images of the drive through the city flashed back as well. Burnt out shells of government buildings, bullet riddled walls and boarded up mansions. Newly opened shops with colorful paintings advertising what’s on sale within their walls. A small boy perched on top of a burned out military vehicle while others played soccer in empty courtyards or side streets. Cows grazing in the garbage littered remains of the old cathedral, not a trace of its once imposing towers. The African Union troops on patrol. Old white Toyota vans packed with passengers plying the streets. Thousands of tents in the camps spread out around the city, hiding behind walls and old mansions. New buildings under construction while what appears to be once stately edifices are under renovation. People sitting around the open air tea stalls in lively conversation or watching the world go by.
There is a sense of reassurance, of life amidst loss. I breathe in. I share the hope of the Somali people for peace after decades of war and conflict. I breathe out. I hear the waves touching the shore while the sea breeze brushes against my face.
Neal Deles is on temporary assignment with our Somalia program. He is based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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