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Environment

Somali refugees' letters are vivid accounts of loss, desperation

Somalian refugees continue to flock to remote camps in southern Yemen, as militias in Mogadishu promise a "final massive war." The sole witnesses to their stories of loss and longing? Letters written to UN agencies.

The exhaustion is visible in the eyes of Halim Ibrahim, 22, who has just arrived by boat from Somalia.

Refugees make the perilous journey to Yemen, hoping for more than survival.

It's taken Hawo Yousef a long time to save up money for the letter - $15. It's a month's pay, if work is to be found at all in Kharaz, a military-base-turned-refugee camp on a dusty plateau in south Yemen.

Yousef is one of the 17,000 refugees at the camp; another one is letter-writer Jamal Mohammed. The 29-year-old has put his literacy to use, putting pen to paper and giving voice to the experiences of those who have lost homes and families.

"I write around 20 letters a month," Mohammed says. "I remember specific letters because of the difficult life the people who come to me have experienced. But then, most of the people in Kharaz have experienced difficulties."

Since 2005, the UN agency for refugees, UNHCR, has received between 100 and 150 letters a month, nearly 10,000 so far. Each of them explains how and why its author ended up in Kharaz, asking the world for help.

With their sometimes clunky grammar, the letters paint a vivid picture of violence, loss and human degradation. In meticulous but awkward black letters, Mohammed slowly writes out the stories of Somalia's unimaginable tragedy.

Dictating loss and violence

When Yousef steps into Mohammed's cinderblock room, it's shadows dim the bright colors of her headscarf. But the shade is not cool; the air is hot as a furnace by midday.

"To Whom It May Concern," Mohammed begins the letter as he does all others.

Hawo Yousef's letter, handwritten by a fellow refugee and addressed To Whom It May Concern, asks the international community for help.

Yousef's letter tells the harrowing tale of her family's demise

Yousef dictates, explaining how in 2007, militia men - "the enemy of civil war," as she calls them - broke into her home.

"They hit [my husband] badly and they wanted to rape me in front of him. He tried to protect me, but unfortunately they killed him with a big knife. I was seven months pregnant at that time. And I decided to go out of the country because of unsafety."

Yousef decided to bring her two youngest daughters, Aisha, 5, and Fadma, 3, with her on the perilous journey to Yemen, while Mariam, her eldest daughter at 13, would stay behind with Yousef's parents in Mogadishu. She couldn't afford to bring all of them.

"During my trip on the sea I passed a difficult life." Mohammed has begun a new paragraph. The crossing from Bossaso, the pirate port on Somalia's northern coast, to Yemen, is supposed to take a day or two, with passengers allowed to carry one small plastic bag each, no food, and a single bottle of water.

With her two small daughters slumped over her lap, Yousef sat cramped in the long thin skiff, a boat designed for two dozen people now packed with nearly 50. Her children were asleep by the time the engine spluttered and stopped - its petrol run dry.

'That compelled me to be mad'

"The boat was swinging around and there were sharks swimming around the boat," Yousef recalls. "People started to quarrel because they were scared. And the smugglers started to beat the people and throw them into the sea."

Aisha and Fadma had woken and were crying; thirsty, hungry and sensing the fear of the adults around them. The smugglers lost their nerve.

"I couldn't make my children be quiet and the smugglers warned me to silence them, but I couldn't," remembers Yousef. "Finally they ripped my children away from me and threw them into the sea."

Mohammed looks up briefly from the letter as Yousef dictates.

"I had no ability to take back my kids from them. And I saw my kids dying on the sea. That compelled me to be mad."

A figure stands at a window in a cement hut

Young Somali men struggle to find work in impoverished Yemen

After 13 nights adrift in the ocean, help finally arrived, another boat which gave them petrol and directions to the Yemeni coast. Forced into the water by smugglers too scared to land them on the shore, many of those who had survived the journey to Yemen drowned just meters from the shore.

Nor did the baby that Yousef had carried with her through seven months in Somalia and seventeen days of escape make it to a new life in Yemen, dying in the Kharaz camp after a premature birth. Today, Yousuf is a childless mother of four.

"Now I heal that wound. But sometimes I remember and really I am in very bad situation with no choice what to do. I have no relatives here and I hope you," Mohammed starts another line, signalling the end of the letter, “Consider my situation. Thank you. Yours. Hawa tent no:- 69pt”

'A final massive war'

Somalia is and remains the world's original failed state. Since rival clans overthrew the government in 1991, civil war has consumed the country and its people. Out of the anarchy of 15 years of warlords grew a vicious, religiously motivated militia, the Shabaab, whose control now extends over large swaths of southern Somalia and most of its capital.

Mogadishu today is a graveyard, its streets abandoned to the wild gunfire of militiamen as Shabaab and other Islamists fight to take over the few remaining streets that government troops control. A contingent of African peace keepers are there as well, although there is no peace to keep.

And the war has no end in sight. On August 24, 33 people, including four members of Somalia's parliament, died after two Shabaab fighters blew themselves up in a hotel in Mogadishu, the start of what the group called "a final, massive war" to take full control of the capital.

Thousands have abandoned the city to live in shelters around its outskirts, just some of the 1.7 million people internally displaced by the war.

And if bullets and knives don't get them, hunger, thirst and disease probably will. Humanitarian agencies are no longer able to reach the crumbling city. In January, the World Food Programme suspended operations in southern Somalia after Shabaab threatened their staff.

Nearly one million people have died from war, disease and famine in Somalia since 1991. So for those who can, escape seems like the only hope. In the first half of this year alone the UNHCR estimates 200,000 Somalis have fled their homes.

'No shining future'

"To Whom It May Concern," Mumina Burale sits across from Mohammed, and dictates her letter.

"I am the mother of a family consisting of seven persons [...] In Yemen although we found some peace, but life is very difficult. No shining future for our children."

Refugee children perched above Kharaz refugee camp

Boiling hot and dusty, Kharaz is a long-term destination for many

Indeed, nothing shines in Kharaz, except sweat on bodies and the sun on cheap metal used by families to build walls around their patch of bare earth and broken stones. The refugee camp is divided into 59 blocks each with 25 shelters. Every family gets their shelter and a latrine sunk into the ground.

New arrivals enjoy five days of cooked food, square meals before it's on to the monthly rations - nine kilos of wheat flour per person, 4.5 kilos of legumes, 1.8 kilos of rice, some oil to cook it in, and some sugar to wash down the tea. A diet of bread and beans: life support, but not more than that.

Six hundred families wait in tents to be moved into shelters; but with only 250 new shelters to move into and no cash to build more, many won't even have four walls to call home.

The frustration of 12 years living in Kharaz begins to show through in Burale's words.

"I am really fed up of such a life and do not know what to do or where to go. I am really very disappointed, so you are the only to whom I can complain and inform my life situation. So that, I write to you looking for your help. Please, I ask you to look at me with kind eyes and help me."

'What to do now'

Resettlement, a new life in America or Europe, is what the voices from the letters wish for and what most will never enjoy.

Adnan Ali woke up in a garbage dump after militia fighters attacked his home, tied him up, killed his two brothers and gang-raped his sister, before killing her as well.

"What to do now," reads his letter, Mohammed's scratchy writing sloping off to one side as if exhausted. "My wife and some of my children are begging in Aden because of that I couldn't feed them. And the other are washing cars at the streets their future lost. Consequently I am kindly asking to give me your cooperation in helping me kindly to return the future of my children."

Mohammed puts down his pen, his hand tired from all the writing. Always busy. He folds Ali's letter and throws it on the pile with those from Yousef, Burale and all the others, waiting to be delivered - To Whom It May Concern.

Authors: Annasofie Flamand, Hugh Macleod
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn

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