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THE ROAD TO KISMAYU IS HOT, DUSTY AND ARMED TO THE teeth. It seems like everybody is killing everybody. From the right, from the left, massacre after massacre, senseless and grotesque. Bodies riddle with
bullets, limbs left on the roadside, pregnant women gutted, bodies stripped and decorated with fragmentation grenades.
The wide scale slaughter in the Juba Valley once Somalia's bread basket, were so brutal that survivors later would remark that they could barely recognize the bodies of their loved ones.
It does not matter. It was the will of God, or it was written, they would say.
Those massacred never allied themselves with any of the warring factions or guerrilla organizations. Just God-fearing Somali Bantus who worked from sunrise to sunset in banana plantations owned by absentee landlords. Militia gunmen from the Central Province and Mogadishu gunned them down with machineguns mounted on battle-wagons, the ubiquitous customized vehicles known here as Technicals. Later their dead bodies were picked up and loaded onto the Red Cross rusty Death Truck and donkey carts, their dead bare legs dangling out of the back and jouncing along the bumpy road.
People have lived with clan warfare and anarchy for so many years they don't care. Nearly every family has lost someone. And in some cases a whole family has been wiped out.
Visiting Western journalists from neighboring Kenya were baffled that the killings in the region had little to do with the opposite side in a civil war. In fact the clan militia rarely clash. Only a handful of them died in mutual skirmishes, and this probably over the ownership of the narcotic drug, khat. No. It is the Somali Bantus and other minority clans who are dying and no one in the world seemed to care. The Belgian contingent of the international task force based in Kismayu remained in their garrison, oblivious of the carnage under their watch.
As they drove through streets strewn with dead bodies and deserted plantations and hamlets Ahmed asked his wife if this was what she wanted.
"Yes," she answered. "I want to get out." There were tears in her eyes.
"I love you both," he said. Then he turned to his stepson.
"Be brave and I promise to send you school."
"I will," the boy said solemnly.
Sometimes well after midnight, the driver slowed the vehicle. A makeshift road barricade appeared in the middle of the narrow track and the driver stopped.
Half a dozen wild looking gunmen glanced inside the Land Cruiser and pointed their guns at the faces of the frightened passengers. But when they saw the Browning machinegun and the guards perched on the hood of the vehicle, with their forefingers on the trigger, they waved the driver through the town of Kismayu.
"That was close!" the driver said to no one in particular. The guards began to sing Magool and Ahmed Mooge's love songs.
They were high on khat!
Soon they were speeding past more deserted farms and villages farther away from Kismayu. Before long the road became bumpy, but the driver did not reduce his speed, waking up the family with the jolt of the vehicle.
Finally, late in the afternoon they pulled up to a tiny village on the edge of a country road. A middle-aged man opened the door of a circular hut. He appeared very friendly. He greeted them with a smile, a rare commodity in war-torn Somalia.
"My name is Karama. From now on I will drive you across the border, God willing," he said with a salesman's smile. He was wearing a hand-embroidered scull cap, like a sheikh, and a small white towel wrapped around his neck. "So you must listen to me carefully," he added. They all nodded in agreement. After filling them in about the road to the border town of Dhobley and the things they should expect, including the shifta (bandits) who rob the refugees, he left them briefly and returned with a steaming kettle of tea, stale bread and fresh bananas, still smiling.
Their old driver, who rarely spoke unless spoken to, harangued with Karama in a language Ahmed did not understand, but which sounded like Kiswahili spoken throughout East Africa and parts of Somalia's Juba Valley. After this, their old driver and his three armed guards disappeared without saying anything to Ahmed.
Later in the afternoon Araksan shivered at the sight of armed border police, but was quickly reassured by their smiling driver that everything's under control. True to his words, Karama spoke to the sergeant in charge of the border post in his softly, softly approach and Ahmed watched money change hands.
"Okay," the sergeant screamed in his parade ground voice, "but hurry up, you're blocking the road!"
A few miles inside Kenya's arid Northeast Province, where Karama said bandits frequently robbed refugees; he pulled his vehicle into an empty space used by UN refugee officials to process the flood of refugees from Somalia. But now no one is in sight. He dropped them off and after distributing cups of warm water from a much-battered Jerry can and offerings of sweetmeat, he walked them to the shade of a thorn tree and left
them there to fend for themselves. He was still smiling as he disappeared behind a cloud of red dust, watched longingly by his terrified passengers.
They were now on their own - strangers in a strange land!
It was as if the bush, too, felt fear. The wind dropped and the birds stopped singing. There was quiet, an overwhelming calm. Not a single leaf stirred. They could only hear their own breath and the drone of a lone airplane overhead. They were clearly sitting targets, waiting for the robbers to come and slaughter them and make away with their money and jewelry.
"Come on. We've got no time. We've got to slip into the camp as soon as it is dark enough."
An hour later the family walked into the squalid Ifo Refugee Camp in the outskirts of the tiny Ifo Village and easily mingled with hundreds of new arrivals waiting to be registered. Ifo Village that formerly served as nomadic encampment or caravanserai is as barren as the surface of the moon. Within days of receiving their registration cards as bona fide refugees, they decided to hire a van to Nairobi, Kenya's sprawling capital, some 950 miles away.
Araksan was uncharacteristically silent and preoccupied but her husband reassured her.
"Don't worry. We're going to be all right," he whispered.
To be continued….


By M.M.Afrah©2004

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