By MALKHADIR M. MUHUMED
DADAAB, Kenya - When al-Qaida-linked militants learned that Ahmedhashim Mawlid Abdi and his family were planning to flee Somalia's famine, they threw the 40-year-old father of seven in jail for two days.
Over the next 17 days, as they made their escape, a gang of gunmen robbed them of the little food they had, Abdi's pregnant wife was raped in front of him, and his 7-year-old son died of starvation and disease. They were even attacked by a lion.
When they finally made it to the Dagahaley refugee camp in neighboring Kenya, their struggles were far from over. Food rations in the overcrowded camp are "just enough to survive on," Abdi said. And the future is uncertain.
As Somalia's famine unfolds in the middle of a war zone, some 2.2 million people are in peril in an area controlled by the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab that is inaccessible to aid groups.
In an extended interview conducted in Somali with The Associated Press, Abdi describes the drought-ravaged region he and his family escaped and the plight facing him and tens of thousands of other refugees in camps in Kenya and Ethiopia.
Q: What your life was like in Somalia? A: We were nomads and lived off our sheep and goats and cows. During the rainy seasons we drank their milk, and during the dry seasons we sold some of them and used the money to buy food, milk and sugar from the local market. We were also farmers.
Conditions have changed. Several seasons passed without enough rain. It is God's act, not human's. The current drought in Somalia has affected us in every possible way. It affected our animals and farms and our lives. The ongoing conflict in our country has also added to our problems. When two elephants fight, it's the grass that suffers.
Q: What did you do after you lost all your animals and the rains still did not come?
A: We fled to the nearest town, Afmadow. We have a Somali saying that goes: A town has many ways to give you a new lease on life. But Afmadow was in a completely different situation when we arrived. It was in the hands of al-Shabab. The militants harassed anyone they believed was opposed to them. I did odd jobs, like fetching firewood from the bush and building houses. But when the going got tough, I decided to flee with six children. I left two more children - a 4-year-old girl and a 20-year-old - with relatives.
Q: Did al-Shabab prevent you from fleeing the country?
A: Yes. We sneaked out in the middle of the night and headed to an area far away from our actual direction so the militants couldn't trace us. They put me in jail for 48 hours after they suspected me of leaving the town to head to Kenya.
Their logic is: Kenya is a Christian country and if you go there, you're a Christian. I was released after local elders intervened. They kicked and slapped me on the face. They even dragged me like a corpse. They said to me: 'You are an apostate,' a word that angered me very much.
Q: Tell me about the perils you faced?
A: We faced hunger, thirst, danger and exhaustion. It took us 17 days to arrive here (at Dagahaley refugee camp). One night a lion almost ate me before I scared it away with my flashlight. Along the way, I carried my 5-year-old daughter on my back and 10 kilograms of rice. My wife also carried a 2-year-old daughter on her back. She was four months pregnant. Luckily, we found relatives on the way and they relieved us of the goods by allowing us to offload them on the donkey-pulled cart.
Q: What was the worst thing that happened?
A: The worst experience we faced was when gunmen ambushed. The gang robbed us of the little food we had with us and raped our women in front of us as if they wanted us to witness their horrors.
The gang was made up of 15 gunmen and we were five families. They raped all the five women. While some men raped the women, others kept watch over them. That ordeal was the worst I have ever faced in my life. I once thought of looking for ways to get a gun to take revenge.
Only three days after that I lost my 7-year-old boy to hunger, exhaustion and disease. He came down with a severe fever and cold but got no treatment. He died at night as we rested. His mother cried a lot, but I accepted God's will. I didn't cry.
Q: How do you see your life as a refugee here?
A: The refugee life is not easy. What I found here is different from what I was thinking of before I came here. I thought a refugee's life in Kenya was like a paradise. I thought that there will be plenty of food. But the rations we receive are just an amount on which we can survive. Not a satisfactory one, but in fact better than the destitution in Somalia.
Q: How do you see your future now?
A: I have high hopes that things will improve. No condition is permanent. I believe in God and pray that he improves my life. I'm hopeful that my children will also get a proper education and help me in the future.
Q: Are you thinking of returning to Somalia at any time soon?
A: Yes, if - and only if - it becomes safe. I will return to Somalia only if a full peace dominates there. It is my country and the country of my father and grandfathers. But if it remains as it is now, I will go to any other place where I can find peace.
Q: What is your advice to other Somalis still in the country?
A: I say to them: Believe in God and pray a lot to save you from the problems you're currently facing. No place is better than your home country.
Q: Any word for the international community?
A: The world should take the Somali problem seriously. It was dragging on and on without any solutions. The world should help Somalis. They have suffered enough. (Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)