Helping displaced people survive in the barren hills of Somaliland

Published: 28 November 2011 14:18 CET

By Thorir Gudmundsson, Director of International and Domestic Operations, Icelandic Red Cross

Thorn bushes, bundles of cacti and parched gravel, lots of gravel; that's now home for Hinda Muse and her husband Ahmed Mohamoud  and their three children on a barren hillside outside of Hargeysa, Somaliland.

They were evicted from a plot in Hargeysa 23 days ago and now need to live in the newly-established Sheikh Omar Internally Displaced People's (IDP) camp, a place that has no running water, no electricity and hardly a road. Water is trucked in by the Somaliland Ministry of Education.

But Hinda and Ahmed are in an optimistic mood. They have just received assistance in the form of trapaulin, blankets, a jerrycan, a bucket, mosquito nets and a hygiene parcel.

"We need the tarpaulin, especially, because when it rains our roof leaks," says Hinda.

That much is quite clear. Her two square metre hut uses a mixture of plastic bags, garments and paper to cover the walls and ceiling. They are fortunate, if you can use the term for Somali IDPs, because they do have shelter and Ahmed has a job in town distributing water on a donkey cart.

"We used to be nomads but our animals died from disease and drought," Hinda says. Asked if she expects to go back to a nomadic lifestile, the reply is a fervent "No." They prefer city life.

Fadma Abdullah is less fortunate. She arrived in the camp seven days ago with her husband and five children. They still don't have a shelter so they have been sleeping rough, in the open.

The tarpaulin, two 4x6 metre sheets of plastic, means the difference between sleeping on the ground without a roof over their heads and being sheltered from the elements.

Somalia Red Crescent volunteers ensure the distribution goes smoothly. Each family's allotment is neatly stacked and everybody's registration paper is checked at the entrance to the distribution area.

This is an example of people-to-people assistance across continents. Funding for the relief items is provided by the Icelandic Red Cross from its clothing business. Customers who purchase used clothes in Red Cross stores in the country know that the proceeds will be used for humanitarian assistance.

Somaliland declared independence two decades ago and while it has yet to achieve international recognition, it is a rare spot of relative tranquility in the collapsed state of Somalia.

While Southern and Central Somalia carry the brunt of the East Africa food crisis, Somaliland has not escaped the effects of recurrent droughts and political violence. Large parts of its capital Hargeysa were destroyed in the Somali civil war as were its only cement factory and important infrastructure. And now there is the drought.

There have always been droughts, wreaking havoc on the lives of East Africa's nomads.

In these conditions, the operations of the Red Crescent present the very image of order in the midst of chaos. In the Hargeysa branch, young volunteers crowd a small room to learn first aid. A great majority of them are girls.

They are all secondary school or university age, but actually many of them come from the IDP camps and belong to families who constitute a considerable part of the Red Crescent's beneficiaries.

In another room, only the low-murmuring hum of computers disturb the silence. Here, more young Red Crescent volunteers are studying, in this case to use computers.

"These young people sign membership agreements and get the opportunity to learn important skills," says Hargeysa branch chairman Ahmed Issa Mohamoud. "Then, they become volunteers. We have their phone numbers and whenever we require them we can send an SMS and they show up."

It is an ingenious method of recruiting volunteers, used in one way or another by many Red Cross Red Crescent societies the world over. These are not paid volunteers, but in the conditions of general poverty in Somaliland, the skills they acquire are precious indeed.

Back at the Sheikh Omar IDP camp, the youth volunteers prove their mettle. Under the midday sun, some 390 stacks of relief material have been placed in neat rows and behind each stack there is a member of the beneficiary family.

As dignitaries make their speeches, it is decided the beneficiaries have waited long enough. Men and women pick up their new belongings and immediately head for the hills. It is a rough existence, but it just got a little bit easier.