By Megan Rowling
LONDON (AlertNet) - Tens of thousands of Somalis hit by famine and conflict since 2011 trekked to the capital Mogadishu looking for food, shelter and medical help. But many who sought refuge in camps there have been raped, beaten, deprived of aid and effectively held hostage by the gatekeepers who control the chaotic settlements, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.
In a report based on more than a year's research, including 70 interviews with uprooted Somalis, the rights group said the most serious abuses had been committed by militias and security forces, often affiliated with the government. These armed groups often have links with camp managers, known as “gatekeepers”, who are generally from the dominant local clan.
"If we try to move from the camp she takes the tents from us," one 40-year-old woman said in the report. "We don’t have a plastic sheet, we don’t have other shelter, and we don’t have a place to sleep. So until we get rescued we must stay there as hostages."
The report documents cases of gang rape, physical violence, ethnic discrimination, diversion and looting of food and other aid by militias and gatekeepers, and reprisals if camp residents dare to protest about their treatment.
The Rahanweyn and Bantu communities from the southern and central Somali regions most affected by the 2011-2012 famine have been treated as second-class citizens and are particularly vulnerable to abuses, it said.
"Among the many problems in the camps, perhaps the most threatening is sexual violence," the report said, noting that women were not safe even in the few government-run settlements.
One woman, aged 23, was nine months pregnant when she was gang-raped by three men, and another was raped even though she told her attacker she was blind.
Many of the attacks took place at night in the victims' huts or tents, when they were lying asleep with their husbands and children, as happened to Safiyo Y.
"I resisted and I tried to run from him and I screamed. People woke up, and he shot me with four rounds," said Safiyo, whose leg had to be amputated after the sexual assault by a government soldier.
HRW said many victims of sexual violence did not report their experiences to the authorities because they feared revenge attacks, were wary of the social stigma, and had little confidence in the justice system. Public commitments by high-level government officials, including the current president, to tackle abuse have yet to be acted on, it added.
SOMALIS 'DESERVE RESPECT'
The Transitional Federal Government, which was in power when many of the documented abuses occurred, was replaced in August 2012 after a U.N.-sponsored election process. The new government has announced plans to relocate the capital's displaced population of between 180,000 and 370,000 by late August.
HRW said the government should, in accordance with international law, ensure that relocations are voluntary and are conducted safely and with dignity, and that competent police forces can provide security at the new sites.
“If the rights, needs, and wishes of the displaced themselves are not addressed, then they are likely to face even more suffering and abuse,” said Leslie Lefkow, HRW's deputy Africa director, adding that members of the armed forces and others responsible for rights violations should be held to account.
The report said the humanitarian community faced significant challenges in trying to provide aid in Mogadishu in a way that did not reinforce abuse and exploitation. Basic principles were often overlooked during the famine in 2011-2012, as agencies came under pressure to step up aid, it added.
Tents, food and other relief supplies provided by international aid agencies were routinely looted, appropriated or withheld from their intended recipients by camp gatekeepers and armed men, and some were sold on local markets. The report also documents widespread corruption in the ration-card system.
One 23-year-old mother said she and her three children were still hungry even after fleeing to Saredo camp to escape starvation, and had resorted to begging. "The food aid comes, but we don’t get it - we are very sad that we are not getting food. Our eyes see the food, but they don’t give it to us," she said.
HRW urged government donors and the United Nations to support the new Somali government in a collaborative effort to crack down on human rights abuses.
Evidence so far suggests this may not be straightforward. There was widespread condemnation earlier this year when a displaced woman who reported being raped by government soldiers, and a journalist who interviewed her, were given prison sentences. This month, they were acquitted and released.
"Somalia may be unique, but Somalis deserve to be treated with respect for international standards," the report said.