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In the danger zone

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Reporter Carol Sanders with Ifo refugee camp's elected chairwoman Asmina Isnina Ali. The position isn't for the faint of heart. The woman who held the post before her was in an SUV that was targeted by an IED (improvised explosive device).  She wasn't hurt in the blast.

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Reporter Carol Sanders with Ifo refugee camp's elected chairwoman Asmina Isnina Ali. The position isn't for the faint of heart. The woman who held the post before her was in an SUV that was targeted by an IED (improvised explosive device). She wasn't hurt in the blast.

DADAAB, Kenya -- "If there's an attack, stay in your house unless it's on fire. Hide under the bed and wait for instructions."

I thought the safety adviser was kidding.

He continued: Avoid entering the "blocks" of the refugee camps. If you must go, have four heavily armed police officers in the vehicle in front of you and four behind you and get in and out quickly, he said. And if the vehicle's hit, lie low.

That formed the basis of the security briefing I received when I arrived at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' compound in Dadaab. Safety expert Michael Makova wasn't kidding.

I'd come to the world's largest refugee camp in northeast Kenya to meet loved ones of Winnipeggers who want to bring them to Canada. And to meet the Winnipeg man in charge of the massive UNHCR humanitarian operation.

I had to see for myself where and how the refugees live, but not become the story as another kidnapped reporter.

 

Late May was an intense time to be in Kenya. The former British colony is experiencing its own 9/11 right now, with hyper-vigilant security forces trampling human rights in the fight against terrorism. Attacks such as last year's Al Shabaab bloodbath at Westgate Mall in upscale Nairobi attracted global attention the tourism-reliant Kenya didn't need.

(Al Shabaab struck again earlier this week, killing at least 49 people in raids on hotels and a police station in Mpeketoni, which is about 200 kilometres from Dadaab.)

Meanwhile, Kenya's government is dealing with charges of corruption and incompetence.

The day I left Nairobi -- Kenya's capital of more than three million people -- I had to bribe a poorly paid police officer threatening to arrest me for taking photos of Property Not for Sale signs outside the posh Canadian Embassy. That night, the power kept going out at the international airport, casting the terminal in darkness.

Insecurity is the biggest issue, and Kenya appears to be taking its frustrations out on the huge refugee population that's flooded into the country over the last 20 years in search of peace and to escape from famine.

Canada, meanwhile, has taken a less welcoming approach to refugees, referring to asylum-seekers as queue-jumpers and strictly limiting the number of new private sponsorships. Canada's visa office in Nairobi, which handles applications for people from 18 countries, will no longer conduct video conferences or in-person interviews with applicants in Dadaab. Refugees afraid of being scooped up by Usalama Watch -- a crackdown targeting terrorists but that's also scooping up refugees and pretty much anyone who doesn't look Kenyan -- are scared to move around Nairobi, never mind travel to Canada's visa office located in its richest enclave.

What's a refugee, many with connections to Winnipeg, to do?

With a burgeoning refugee population -- now more than 357,000 -- what's the world agency tasked with keeping them safe to do?

I went to find out.

The UNHCR recommended a "fixer" in Dadaab -- a Somali-Kenyan who helped line up vehicles, drivers and off-duty police officers to ride shotgun. His name was Abdi.

Outside the police station in Dadaab is the carcass of a bombed-out police vehicle. Remote-controlled IEDs (improvised explosive devices) on the road have been a problem in Dadaab, Abdi explained.

"You see a guy drinking tea waiting for the police car to go by then 'pop!' " he said.

Travelling in locally owned civilian vehicles is a safety precaution, he advised. "If something happened, Somalis will know who did that, and there will be payback. It'll be 'Which clan carjacked that vehicle and took that white girl?' "

Abdi notified the refugees with Winnipeg connections in the Dagahaley and Ifo refugee camps to let them know when we were coming but cautioned them keep it a secret.

"I tell them not to tell anyone we're coming. 'It's going to be dangerous for us and jeopardize your story of having a chance of going anywhere.' "

It wouldn't take long for a group to outgun and outnumber our modest convoy armed with eight G3 assault rifles and hand grenades, he said.

My driver, Warsame, was not a police officer but a local Somali-Kenyan. For once, the vehicle's NO FEAR stickers, which tout an American action sport apparel company of the same name, seemed justified. Another sticker on his visor offered encouragement: "I will use the stones that my enemies throw at me to build my own foundation."

The 45-minute drive to the Dagahaley and Ifo camps was over a rough road snaking around scrub brush, giant anthills and craters where roads used to be. We met the people I wanted to interview at the main office of the camps and had them direct us to their courtyards and huts. Their tidy but sparse homes were burrowed deep inside a densely packed maze of humanity. When crowds started to gather, we had to go.

I didn't feel threatened during the visits and wish I could've stayed longer. But after Abdi's warning and my initial security briefing, I was relieved to get out of there.

 

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

 

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 21, 2014 D5

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