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Scores of Zanzibari families find an unlikely home in war-ravaged Somalia

Thursday December 10 2009

From a distance, the former headquarters of Mogadishu Water Agency is clearly a poor shadow of its former self. It has decaying walls, disorganised structures and rickety kiosks around the front door.

Its tenants are normally Somalis from different regions. But the people camping here today tell a very unlikely story about conflict-ravaged Somalia – they are refugees from Zanzibar. They came to Somalia eight years ago.

Mr Rashid Abdallah Said, the spokesman of the men and women who fled Zanzibar, tells a very unappy story about the refugees.

“We arrived in Mogadishu in November 2001 in three trips,” says Rashid.

The camp occupants live in long-abandoned office facilities and adjacent warehouses, all of them half-destroyed during nearly two decades of civil war.

According to Rashid, 85 families are in the ‘camp’. There are several children, some playing happily.

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Best bread winners

The signs of joblessness and destitution are well captured by the chairperson of the refugees, Mr Salim Ahmed Khatib.

“We have nothing much,” says Khatib. “The best bread winners we have are three teachers and four barbers.”

Mogadishu’s residents are familiar with Zanzibari refugees begging around, but Rashid admits that even beggars do not get much.

“Since the Somalis are themselves going through hardship, you cannot expect to scoop much from them, even if you extend the hand often,” he says.

Although the home in exile leaks profusely and the toilets are unbearably unsanitary, some people still collect rent from the Zanzibari refugees.

The chairman and the spokesman say that it has become very difficult to pay Somali Shillings 150,000 (Sh300) per month per room.

The place houses 60 parents and their families; half of them are now married to Somali women.

“Some of our fellow refugees went to other regions in Somalia while others have crossed to the Arabian Peninsula” says Rashid.
Twenty went back to Zanzibar.

The Zanzibaris speak of the islands of Pemba and Unguja, where they came from, with pride. “We are all from Zanzibar, especially from Pemba and Unguja,” says their deputy chairman Ali Juma Said.

Talking about what forced such a large group from Zanzibar, Juma is ready to point a finger at politics. “We had a general election in 2001 and the government denied us our rights,” says Juma.

Violently suppressed
A subsequent protest was violently suppressed, with government forces killing some of the protestors.

“That was the reason we escaped from Zanzibar to Mombasa in Kenya and then continued to Ifo refugee camp in Kenya’s North-eastern Province,” says Rashid.

“We eventually continued the journey to Mogadishu, arriving here in November 2001.”

Not many people expected the Zanzibari refugees to face tough time here. They are among the peoples in East Africa closely associated with Mogadishu and even with the southern coast of Somalia popularly known as Banadir (a broken way of pronouncing the Swahili word Bandari – harbour).

According to elders in Mogadishu, Zanzibar-based sultans also ruled Mogadishu and Banadir coast. The best remembered ruler is Sayyid Barghash.

A popular princess

Shangani is the quarter in Mogadishu where Sayyid Barghash had his palace and the name Shangani is said to be very popular in Zanzibar.

Many businesses in Mogadishu are named Shahrazad, a popular princess in Zanzibar a long time ago. The Shahrazad cosmetics shop in Mogadishu represents this legacy.

“It is a pity that Zanzibari refugees come to Mogadishu at a time when the city’s residents can hardly feed themselves, let alone help others,” says Sayid Abdurahman Sheikh Mohamud Shacir, one of the officials of Hamar Boarding and Kindergarten School.

The school received the refugees when they arrived in Mogadishu before they moved to the former headquarter of the water agency.

“I never expected the refugees to overstay in war-torn Mogadishu,” says Abdurahman Shacir, adding; “They must be avoiding a return to Zanzibar as a matter of principle.”

The Zanzibari refugees complain that they hardly get any assistance from benefactors.

“Currently, only the NRC (Norwegian Refugee Council) is trying to give us something” says Rashid.

According to Rashid, the World Food Programme (WFP) used to help the refugees but that is no more. “WFP cut everything and we are now living a very difficult life,” says the spokesman.

“We need help from any NGO that can provide whatever. We have no choice.”

Although Somalis in poor slums are also accusing WFP of stopping assistance, the Zanzibaris believe the agencies’ officials are targeting them.”

“WFP officials refuse to talk to us particularly, giving no reason why they reject us,” says Rashid.

Asked whether the Tanzanian government influenced WFP to stop supplies to the camp so that the refugees could go back home, Rashid could not rule out such a possibility.

Lack of civil rights

“The government in Tanzania wants us to go back, but you know African governments can do anything,” says Rashid. He indicates that the refugees could not go back because of the problems, including the lack of civil rights that existed there.

“For the time being, we can say never to going back home”, says the spokesman. He alleges that refugees who returned were arrested, and names some of the individuals who were held as Kombo Fiki, Mohamed Kassim, Fatma Juma and Mohamed Abdi. “Up to now, they are having problems and their case is going on” he said.

According to the leaders of the Zanzibari refugees, all of them have cards given by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR.

However, recognition by the UN alone is not much, especially if the refugees are not given the chance to leave war-torn Somalia and be resettled in safer places.

“We would be happy with any country where we can be free. We need health care, education and security as our lives are in constant danger” said Rashid.

Abdulkadir Khalif is a Nation Correspondent based in Mogadishu

Africa Insight is an initiative of the Nation Media Group’s Africa Media Network Project.