Even among refugees fleeing famine-stricken Somalia there are the “haves” and “have-nots” -- those who cross the border in a battle for survival and those who can pay for a car.
“I paid $150 to be brought here from Mogadishu,” said Abshira Abdullahi, speaking in the courtyard of a guesthouse after emerging from a crowded mini-van.
For most of the destitute families trekking through rebel-controlled southern Somalia–their livelihoods destroyed by the triple shock of conflict, the worst drought in decades and a lack of food aid–$150 is a princely sum beyond dreams.
Abdullahi left her five children in the care of her younger brother, saying life had become unbearable in Mogadishu’s Madina district, near the capital’s old quarter where once-majestic colonial façades now tumble into the turquoise ocean.
Two decades of civil war have reduced much of the city to rubble.
An insurgency started in 2007 still rages on, with almost daily tit-for-tat artillery fire and gun battles between al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants and Somali forces.
“Life in Mogadishu was like being under house arrest,” said Abdullahi, a 30-year-old divorcée.
The United Nations has declared famine in two regions of Somalia and says 3.7 million people in the country are going hungry due to drought.
In a report for countries sending aid, the UN’s umbrella humanitarian agency OCHA said the crisis was expected to continue to worsen through 2011, with the whole of the south slipping into famine.
The sandy, windswept town of Liboi, a small trading centre less than 20 km from the border patrolled by marabou storks , was Abdullahi’s final stopping point en route to the overflowing Dadaab refugee camp 80 km deeper inside Kenya.
In early 2007, Kenya officially closed its frontier with Somalia, marked outside Liboi by a single concrete pillar and two makeshift military road-blocks, in an effort to block the movement of Somali Islamist rebels.
The closure forced the shutdown of a transit centre in Liboi where the UN refugee agency screened, registered and handed out food rations to incoming asylum seekers before transporting them to Dadaab.
Several lodges have sprung up in the dusty alleyways behind the main drag, owned by Liboi’s bigwigs who see money to be made from the wealthier refugees before their final push to Dadaab. Business has boomed with the recent influx of refugees.
“We run this as a private lodge,” said a local administrator in the courtyard of another guesthouse, where as many as 10 family members were squeezed into a single room with three beds.
A young boy collecting cash said the charge was 100 Kenyan shillings per person, though for a couple with five children this was discounted to 400 shillings.
Over a mug of sweet milky tea, some residents muttered that the reason officials were reluctant to throw their weight behind re-opening the transit centre given that it would likely kill the lodges.
But Hassan Mahmoud Mohamed would have welcomed a UN reception centre.
His family sat exhausted in the grounds of Liboi’s clinic, the children’s feet deeply cracked after dragging their scrawny limbs for 15 days from southern Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region, the famine’s epicentre.
“We walked up to 12 hours a day without anything to drink, no water, no milk, only what people we passed gave us,” the father-of-seven told Reuters. “At least we’re told here we’ll get assistance”.
But he was wrong. Apart from water from the town’s bore hole, there would be no help until they reach at Dadaab, a sprawling tent and shack city of more than 400,000 people and the world’s largest refugee camp.
“They’re needy and vulnerable people but what more can we give them? There’s also a drought here. It would be too much of a burden,” said local resident Adow Noor Burl.
Moments later, a gang of loud-mouthed youths kicked Mohamed and his family out of the clinic, demanding they take their illnesses elsewhere.
Visiting aid workers watched as Mohamed and his kids trudged wearily down the road to Dadaab. While Mohamed asked for nothing more than food, water and safety for his family, Abdullahi, a bus ticket to Dadaab in hand, had grander expectations.
“Perhaps I will be resettled to Australia where I have family,” she said.