Zanzibaris seek safety in Somalia

19 10 2009

It is hard to understand why anyone would want to travel 600 miles to seek refuge in Somalia, one of the most dangerous places in the world. Especially if you come from the Tanzanian archipelago of Zanzibar, best known for its tropical beaches lined with coconut-laden palm trees.

But although Somalia has been in almost constant conflict since its central government collapsed in 1991, the capital, Mogadishu, has become a haven for hundreds of refugees from the Zanzibari island of Pemba. The refugees originally left the semi-autonomous Tanzanian islands in 2001 when political riots began between the Tanzanian ruling party and the opposition, the Civic United Front. Several people, including policemen, were killed.

“We first stayed in Kenya,” says Salim Ahmed Khadib, the leader of the Zanzibari community in Mogadishu. “But because of the relationship between Kenya and Tanzania we feared repatriation and decided to go to Somalia, regardless of the risks.”

Making a new life

The Zanzibari residents in Mogadishu say that out of the 192 families living in Somalia, 85 of them are still living in Mogadishu. The rest have gone further north to Puntland or Somaliland, areas which are relatively more peaceful. Most of them work as barbers, while others became carpenters, teachers or fishermen.

But the Zanzibaris living in Mogadishu say that after eight years there, they are still struggling to survive. Unable to find somewhere decent to live, those families remaining in the capital made a disused water purification plant their home. The building is in south Mogadishu in a government-controlled area just one kilometer away from where government soldiers and insurgents are fighting. This is where the Zanzibaris eat, sleep and sometimes try to make money by selling chocolate, sweets or camel milk. Rooms are overcrowded, there is no clean water or sanitation and the smell of rotting vegetables and waste is stifling.

Ali Ja’far, a 42-year-old Zanzibari who stays in one of the rooms with four children and a Somali wife, says he is jobless and cannot afford to feed his family. “There are six of us but we only have one mattress to sleep on, so we put our upper bodies on the mattress and our legs on the ground,” Mr Ja’far says. “This is our fate. This is the way we live,” he says, adding that he wants to return home once there is stability.

‘Forgotten community’

The Zanzibaris say that unlike internally displaced Somalis, they do not receive any help from the aid agencies. “Once we went and asked for their help,” says Rashid Sa’id, one of the Zanzibaris. “They told us to go home but we don’t want to. We are a forgotten community in a lawless country,” he says.

Roberta Russo, the spokesperson for the UN refugee agency in Somalia says while the UNHCR does provide support to refugees living in Somalia, it is difficult helping refugees in the capital since there is no functioning government there. The escalation in fighting in recent months has also made most of south and central Somalia inaccessible to aid agencies. She says the UNHCR does support the local government in Puntland and Somaliland where they provide basic help for refugees. But the authorities have limited capacity for dealing with the huge number of refugees in the country.

The UNHCR say there are 1,800 refugees in Somalia and that interviews still have to be done to determine the status of the 18,000 asylum seekers. So the Zanzibaris in Mogadishu, like Mohamed Aden Suleyman, who now runs a public toilet, have had to fend for themselves. “Sometimes we are ok, and sometimes we suffer,” he says. Beyond the worry of food and money, they also face the threat of violence every time they leave their homes.

According to UNHCR figures, in the past three months, a quarter of a million Somalis have fled Mogadishu, to try to escape a city thronging with the sound of gunfire, mortar, bullets, bombs, shells and shrapnel. “While we are not particularly targeted, we are still affected by the fighting just as ordinary Somalis are,” says Mr Khadib. “Two of us were caught in the cross fire and injured. One lost his leg after being hit by a shell and the other is ok now.”

Mr Sa’id says they are afraid to go out because of the violence. “But no-one can live without food. So we have to go out and if fighting breaks out, we take cover with Somalis and go home once the fighting is over,” he says.

Integrating with Somalis

While daily violence makes life difficult, when it comes to integrating, the Zanzibaris say they have never felt discriminated against. They say the residents of Mogadishu treat them well. Thirteen of the Zanzibaris are married to Somali women and have children. Mr Khadib’s wife is 27-year-old Ilmiyo Osman. Standing in front of her home she says she is happy that she married a Zanzibari man. “The only problem is that we do not always have enough to eat. But everything about our cultural differences is ok and we understand each other,” she says.

Life in Mogadishu is clearly difficult, but when asked about returning to Zanzibar, Mr Khadib says he thinks nothing has changed. “The same problem that I ran away from is still there,” he says. “We came to Somalia because the police were torturing and killing some of our people and sending others to jail. This was because we supported the opposition party, the Civic United Front.”

So while the bullets continue to fly in Mogadishu, these Zanzibari refugees will not be leaving their mini haven in one of the world’s most terrifying cities any time soon.

Source: BBC News


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