Voices of Young Somali Refugees Children's Stories Symbolize the Plight - and Tenacity - of Millions of Displaced Persons. HORN OF AFRICA TURMOIL
Robert M. Press, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
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 refugees.
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 of Kenya.
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 late May.
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, Somalia's capital.
"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. …