Skip to main content


Return to Transcripts main page


Somali Refugees Flee Unrest at Home to Find Dangers Abroad

Aired November 25, 2006 - 12:30:00   ET


FEMI OKE, HOST: Hello, I'm Femi Oke. This is INSIDE AFRICA, your weekly look at life and news on the continent. This week, we follow Somali refugees who have fled unrest at home only to find new and sometimes worst dangers abroad. And we'll find out how one group of refugees is picking up the bits and the pieces after Sierra Leone's civil war.
We begin in Yemen, on the southern shores of Arabia, where refugees from Somalia and some from Ethiopia are heading there in small boats. It's a desperate journey, and not everyone makes it alive. Jonathan Mann reports.


JONATHAN MANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: In the darkness, you can make them out a few at a time. Refugees literally washing up on the shores of Yemen, people of all ages, some living, some dead, and others somewhere in between.

Mohidi Ali Omar (ph) says he hasn't eaten or slept in three days. He was dumped in the water close to shore. He staggered to the beach and collapsed.

"I felt dizzy," he says.

It wasn't just the journey that was so punishing. The traffickers who organize it are cruel to their human cargo. Omar Hassan (ph) says they cut open the gash on his face.

"We were forced to crouch for three days away", Awad Sasmin (ph) says, "packed in like animals, denied water, beaten if we moved."

Since September, an estimated 1,000 refugees a week have been making the dangerous crossing from Somalia on the eastern tip of Africa across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen. Other Somalis are escaping in other directions, to Ethiopia and Kenya.

They're all trying to get away from the chaos of a country without a government, from the danger of a sporadic civil war, and a repression of a new regime of Islamic fundamentalists called the Islamic Courts Union. That is the Somalia they're living behind.

Yemen is different, but if it's tragedy that's behind them, it's disappointment that's ahead. A military patrol offers their first welcome -- a pick-up truck crammed full of refugees. The U.N. says the refugees are sometimes robbed, even at times, the refugees say, by the police or soldiers. But right now, a truck driving through the darkness is the only help in sight.

In daylight, you can see what happens to the unlucky ones. Stones in the sand mark the graves of refugees who died on the way, drowned by accident or thrown overboard to lighten a boat's load in bad weather. A $50 trip to freedom that ends in death instead.

AOUAD-DJAFFER BAOBELD, UNHCR: The boats are overloaded, and most of them, they are all loaded in the hull, so they die due to suffocation or asphyxia. Then they don't get fresh air to breathe, they die. During this last month, more than 30 people died, and the majority are thrown off board in the sea.

MANN: The men who fish these waters say they're finding something new in their nets -- loaded corpses. Some have gunshot wounds, others have their hands tied.

Mohammed Ali (ph) says he's found about 40 bodies floating at sea. "We haul them out," he says, "and bury them here, and in other makeshift graveyards up and down the beach."

And then there are the survivors. These men say they've been wandering around helplessly for two days. They're exhausted, and have already been robbed. They're wishing that they hadn't even come.

"In God's name, I tell you, it kills you," he said. "You regret ever making this journey. I'm an old man. I get rheumatism. It was agony."

Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world. It can't offer much help to the refugees, and it falls to the United Nations to do what it can. But even the U.N. seems hardly up to the task. At this improvised refugee pick-up point, there are no U.N. vehicles to ferry new arrivals. Anything the U.N.'s one local employer can commander is pressed into service.

And there is only one official refugee camp in Yemen. It's a poor, hot and windy home to 9,000 people. But there are nearly 10 times as many refugees registered in the country, and there are maybe thousands more who never sign up. They're eager to tell the world about the country they left behind.

"They had guns and whips, and they attacked us while we were watching a film," this cinema owner said. "They shot the screen, they smashed our cassettes, and they beat the audience and broke their legs."

"The Islamists impose a curfew after 7:00 p.m. If you're caught out after that time, you'll be beaten. Men and women can no longer walk together in the streets."

"I don't want to talk about Islamists or warlords. I'm too hungry here, and I wish I hadn't bothered coming."

There is supposed to be enough food for everyone, supplied by the U.N., but refugees say they're being shortchanged because of corruption by camp administrators.

"Monthly rations aren't enough for a week. We left Somalia because life was so bad, but it's no better here in this camp. I'm treated like a dog."

A widowed mother of two, whose husband and first child were killed in Somalia, says she's unable to survive on the U.N. handouts.

"Police and camp officials steal what we're meant to have. I'm forced to beg and work as a prostitute," she says, "because conditions are so harsh. There are a lot of women in the camp selling sex, even married women."

Yemen's foreign minister says his government is doing its best to protect the refugees, and some of the complaints are calculated.

ABUBAKER AL-QIRBI, YEMENI FOREIGN MINISTER: The refugees, unfortunately, take such accusation as an excuse for them to go to a third country, and this is why they want to blame the Yemeni government ad Yemeni authorities in order to get the sympathy of other countries for them to be allowed to travel to Europe or to the United States of America.

MANN: The U.N. praises Yemen for helping the refugees. Its own people live on just over $1 a day, and nearly half are unemployed. The Somalis who come don't get much sympathy.

Mohammed (ph) says it's a rough life, and he doesn't get help from the U.N. or anyone. Instead of dying of hunger out on the streets, he says we wash cars and can afford to buy just about enough food to survive.

"Yemenis don't like us here, though. They think we're loaded," he said.

This is the life that thousands are risking their lives for -- a dangerous journey to poverty, a long way from home.

Jonathan Mann, CNN.


OKE: When we come back, Somali refugees seeking safety in South Africa find themselves victims once again, but this time the target of hate crimes. Stay with us.


OKE: They had little to lose, but for many refugees what war and poverty didn't take in Somalia, heavy rains are washing away in Kenya. For months, torrential storms have drenched the Horn of Africa, including eastern Kenya, where the U.N. says camps housing thousands of Somali refugees have been severely damaged by the rains. Eighty percent of the inhabitants have lost most of their belongings, and floods are making it difficult to get help to the camps.

In the past year, more than 30,000 refugees have crossed into Kenya from Somalia. The lucky ones come in open trucks. Others walk for weeks, relying on villages along the way for food and water.

Authorities worry about what's next, because flooding often brings out breaks of diseases like cholera and typhoid, yet another cloud on the horizon for these war-weary refugees.

Thousands of Somali refugees have also fled to South Africa. The country, which is home to immigrant groups from across the continent, struggles with some of the world's highest rates of violent crime. And recently, a string of murders has left many Somalis fearing for their lives. Jeff Koinange reports from Capetown.


JEFF KOINANGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: 31-year old Rakia Abdu Yusuf (ph) is trying to reorganize her life, one stack at a time. She's a grocery store owner, trying to make an honest living in Africa's equivalent of the melting pot. She's married with four little children. The youngest 2; the oldest 8.

Rakia is also a refugee. She fled conflict in war-torn Somalia, and settling here in Masipulele (ph), a low-income neighborhood just outside Capetown, South Africa's second largest city.

Like the thousands of other Somalis here, getting a job is a problem without the proper paperwork. The only alternative, they say, is to set up a shop.

They've been successful for the most part, intermingling with the locals while retaining their Somali culture.

But one night four weeks ago, Rakia's South African dream became a nightmare. She shows us where attackers -- mostly her neighbors, she says -- broke into a shop which doubles as a one-room shack for her family of six. By the time the police arrived, her grocery stock and her personal possessions were gone, looted, and their lives threatened.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm not happy staying here, because 24 hours I have headache problem. I want to go back to my momma house.

KOINANGE (on camera): So, you want to go back home?


KOINANGE: If you had a choice, you'd go back?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. I'd like to go back.

KOINANGE: In a country with one of the highest crime rates in the world, this robbery might have gone unnoticed, but Rakia was the latest victim of criminals who seem to be targeting foreigners in general, and Somalis in particular.

September 16th, a funeral for Suleiman Ahmed (ph), murdered while tending his store not far from Rakia Abdu Yusuf (ph). His death marked the 20th hate crime in the area in just four weeks. This has Somalis like Rakia worried about their safety.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A lot of people are dying, dying, dying. Every day. I'm so scared. I'm scared.

MOHAMMED AZIZ, SOMALI REFUGEE: When we came here, we had nothing at all.

KOINANGE: A half-hour's drive away, in the township of Kaeleche (ph), on the street known locally as the Mogadishu Mile, Mohammed Aziz, another Somali refugee and store owner, has been shot at over and over again by people, he says, who aren't interested in stealing his stock.

AZIZ: Actually, this mass killing - it is only about Somalis. These killings, without robbing, this is something coming from somewhere else.

KOINANGE: Aziz has become sort of an unofficial spokesman for the 5,000 Somalis that live in this area alone. Going from store to store, urging his fellow Somalis to remain calm, that the hate crimes will eventually stop.

He says the South African government has been slow to respond to what's an escalating problem of xenophobia - another term for locals' dislike of foreigners.

Human rights activists see it differently.

JODY KOLLAPEN, S. AFRICA HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION: There is no data to suggest that indeed they represent a threat to local business people.

KOINANGE: We tried to get the South African police services to comment on ongoing allegations of hate crimes against the Somalis. Each time, our requests for an interview were turned down, but CNN did manage to get this written response.

"We have made a decision to reserve our comment on the matter as these incidents are still under investigation."

Jody Kollapen of the South African Human Rights Commission agrees incidents of xenophobia are on the rise in the country, but admits these latest hate crimes are getting out of control.

KOLLAPEN: The risk is that if those responsible for the attacks get away with it, then it sends out a message that foreigners in general, but Somalis in particular, are fair game. And that can't be acceptable.

KOINANGE: That's little comfort for Rakia Abdu Yusuf (ph) and her young family. They thought they'd left all the war and carnage behind in the streets of Mogadishu. Given the choice, Rakia says she'd return to Mogadishu in an instant. So would Mohammed Aziz.

AZIZ: I'd better go and join the - the what do you call it - the fight there. I leave this place. So that I can't defend myself here, you would die just without knowing anything while you're putting money in your till.

KOINANGE: Jody Kollapen says South Africa's young democracy needs all the help it can get.

KOLLAPEN: The reality is that (inaudible) years into democracy, we're going to have to get used to the fact that we're part of Africa, that we will have to live with others who come from across our borders. And in many instances, they come with better skills and better knowledge and better equipped to take advantage of the opportunities in South Africa.

KOINANGE: For many, South Africa may be the El Dorado of Africa, but for Rakia Abdu Yusuf (ph) and many of her fellow countrymen and women, the land of milk and honey has turned out to be a bitter experience.

Jeff Koinange, CNN, Capetown.


OKE: There is more to come on INSIDE AFRICA just ahead.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's part of my life. I like playing music even for nothing.


OKE: Putting the plight of Sierra Leone's civil war refugees into song. We hear from the Refugee All-Stars next. Stay with us.


OKE: Good to see you again. Their music is burning up charts all over the world, so it's hard to believe Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars found their voice in the refugee camps of a brutal civil war. Danielle Elias soaked up some of the band's infectious spirit and has this report for us.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hi, everybody, let's put your hands together and welcome to the stage, Refugee All-Stars of Sierra Leone.

DANIELLE ELIAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is Bona Rue (ph), one of the largest music festivals in the U.S. Some 10,000 adoring fans are cheering on Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars. An adrenaline rush many musicians may never experience, the Refugee All-Stars cherish every second of it.

REUBEN KOROMA, REFUGEE AL STARS: We are not asking for more. So I'm very happy, because for every artist, if you create something, you want people to appreciate it.

ELIAS: A decade of civil war in the West African nation of Sierra Leone led to tens of thousands of people fleeing the bloody battle for safer ground. It was at the Sembacunia (ph) camp in Guinea where the musicians first came together.

KOROMA: We didn't benefit anything, but the only thing we had hopes that as long as we played music, music will one day give us what we're looking for.

ELIAS: And it finally did give them what they were looking for, when two U.S. filmmakers saw the gripping story behind the Refugee All-Stars' music. The four-year project resulted in an album and a compelling documentary that has gained worldwide acclaim.

The youngest member, Black Nature, was orphaned by the war.

BLACK NATURE, REFUGEE ALL-STARS: I started writing lyrics in the camp, and now those lyrics spread into the world now. People are appreciating the songs, you know. I think it's a big lesson. It's a big experience for me.

ELIAS: The Refugee All-Stars salvaged their lives and rewrote their future in the form of uplifting West African reggae.

BLACK NATURE: The lyrics talk about peace, you know. It talks about what is going on. It talks about peace for the people to maintain the peace. It goes like this.

ELIAS: The members of this band have gone from being refugees and fleeing a decade of civil war in their own country to actually performing for refugees in camps across Guinea, now to having international recognition by playing concert venues around the world.

KOROMA: To me, it means a lot. Just in that, I - it's my responsibility to comfort the souls, these crying souls. Because everybody (inaudible), and these people have psychological problems. So I just thought that music is at that political time, music is important for them.

ELIAS: The band members still live in their home of Freetown. They're still struggling with the realities of recovery along with their dreams of continuing their band's good fortune.

Danielle Elias, for INSIDE AFRICA, Atlanta.


OKE: You guys always like to get some new dance steps for the weekend. For more information on the Sierra Leone All-Star Refugees, you can learn their dance steps too, no doubt - including the information about the documentary and upcoming tour dates, you can do it at this Web site: I'm pretending I'm not out of breath. That's

From music to movies. Film buffs flocked to the 40th Carthage Film Festival in Tunis last week. Sylvia Smith had a front-row seat at the historic festival and brings us this look at Africa's movie industry.


SYLVIA SMITH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Africa's oldest film festival has been showcasing African and other international films for the last four decades. For Tunisia itself, filmmaking goes back yet another decade, after it regained its independence from France in 1956.

DORA BOUCHOCHA, TUNISIAN FILM PRODUCER: The majority of Tunisian films were made after independence, and for those early filmmaker, the preoccupation was the colonial oppression, the war of independence, and then they moved on to the (inaudible), female emancipation and the advent of modernity (ph).

SMITH: Today, the search for funding forces many African filmmakers to opt for co-productions. Partnerships, some say, can compromise the integrity of the films.

BOUCHOCHA: We tend to tailor our themes, our scripts, in order to please what we think is expected of us.

CHEIK DOUKOURE, FILM DIRECTOR (through translator): There is always the possibility that someone forces his opinion on the other, or tries to impose his point of view on a work.

SMITH: But now, new Tunisian initiatives are giving filmmakers a chance to get international funding with no strings attached.

CAMILLA LARSSON, SWEDISH GOTEBORG FILM FUND: We want to give the money away, kind of, to find an interesting way of seeing the continent.

SMITH: Among the more prominent funders are Sweden and Holland, who see their sponsorship as a way to help the continent develop and build its own cinema industry.

But they say many more sponsorships of this sort are needed.

BIANCA TAAL, HUBERT BALS FUND: It's never enough to finance the whole film from. So in those cases, very often, the filmmaker will have to look for further financing in Europe.

SMITH: So while African filmmakers remain desperately short of cash, this type of funding allows at least some of them to stretch their wings.

Perhaps in due time, this will be reflected in many more solely African- influenced perspectives on the big screen.

For CNN's INSIDE AFRICA, I'm Sylvia Smith in Tunisia.


OKE: And that's it for this week's program. Thank you so much for watching. Next week, we have an AIDS special as we commemorate World AIDS Day, so please let INSIDE AFRICA be your window to the continent.

Until the next time, I'm Femi Oke. Take care.

I will leave you with the Refugee All-Stars.



© 2007 Cable News Network.
A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines. Contact us. Site Map.
Offsite Icon External sites open in new window; not endorsed by
Pipeline Icon Pay service with live and archived video. Learn more
Radio News Icon Download audio news  |  RSS Feed Add RSS headlines