SIX-YEAR-OLD Suhuru's lively brown eyes open wide as she tells of
her narrow escape and her new life as one of the world's 17 million
Recently, UNICEF brought together more than 100 refugee children
from the East African coastal nation of Somalia to speak and sing
pleas for peace and for international help to refugees from their
homeland tattered by war and drought.
Suhuru Mahamed Mohamod, one of the youngest Somalis at the
conference, was not on the program. But everywhere you looked, there
she was, usually in the arms of, or hand in hand with, Somali
adults. Someone had even printed Suhuru's full name on her left
palm. It was as if no one wanted to lose her, the way she had lost
much of her family the night her refugee boat capsized off the coast
Africa has more than 5 million refugees, nearly a third of the
world's total. Roughly half of Africa's refugees are children,
estimates the US Committee on Refugees, a private organization.
There are now about 700,000 Somali refugees, according to the
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Most of them are in
Ethiopia, where food relief has been sporadic because of anarchy in
the region of the camps after rebels seized power in Ethiopia in
Most Somali refugees in Kenya get help, either in the homes of
relatives or in UN camps. Camp conditions have ranged from sticks
and plastic sheeting in the early stages, to buildings in the
capital. But even in Nairobi, one child complained, many refugees
sleep on the floor. The children miss school - and home.
Suhuru describes fighting between rebel groups in central
Somalia, the region of the capital. In January, rebels finally
defeated dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, only to fall into conflict
among themselves over who would rule. In May, northern rebels
declared independence from the rest of the country - and things have
been fairly peaceful there in recent weeks.
But the years of war and this year's clashes among rebels have
sent hundreds of thousands of Somalis fleeing to the neighboring
countries of Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya.
Suhuru's story, which she told the Monitor calmly, clearly, and
energetically through a Somali translator, began earlier this year,
with her sudden awakening in bed at her former home in Mogadishu,
"We were fast asleep when all the problems, the fighting
started," says Suhuru, her short legs dangling from the chair,
sometimes swinging, or kicking a chair leg. She wore tiny gold
earrings, a green skirt, and a natty orange blouse which the woman
translator occasionally gently tugged into place.
'WE moved from our house and went to a place called Medina,"
another section of Mogadishu, she continues. "I came with my father
and grandmother from Medina to Afgoi, from Afgoi to Kismayo."
Somewhere along the way, she saw someone shot, Suhuru says.
The family split up in Kismayo. Her father went overland, and is
now, she says, at a camp just inside Somalia, on the border with
Kenya. The grandfather flew to Nairobi. The mother, who Suhuru said
left her when she was a baby, lives in Italy. Suhuru was put on a
boat with her brothers and sisters and some family adults. The boat
was jammed with Somalis fleeing the fighting and growing hunger.
Nearly at the end of the journey, within sight of the Kenyan coast,
the boat capsized. Suhuru picks up the story:
"Before the boat turned over, water came in. …