, BAIDOA, Jun 2 – He was thin but strong, in a new uniform and boots. After forcing his way into Hawo’s ragged shelter the man put a gun to her throat, then raped her, twice.
“Mentally, I can see him,” Hawo said, recalling the late-night March assault in Dusta, a camp in the southwestern city of Baidoa for Somalis displaced by drought and hunger.
As he raped her in her home made of sticks, plastic and old fabrics, Hawo’s youngest child, a breast-feeding baby, cried while her two other children slept.
Dusta runs right up to the fence of a fortified compound housing troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which is fighting the Shabaab, an Al-Qaeda-aligned insurgency committed to overthrowing the internationally-backed government in Mogadishu.
However residents say no one offers protection, not AMISOM, not the army, not the regional militia and not local nor UN police. AMISOM refused to comment.
Most of those living in Dusta are women and children from Shabaab-controlled areas who came to the regional capital in search of food, water and medical care.
An AFP tally of figures given by two local NGOs shows at least 54 displaced women raped and sexually assaulted this year in the camps, which have mushroomed around Baidoa as the country teeters on the brink of famine.
Both men in uniform and civilians have been implicated.
Muhudin Daud Isack, who works for ISHA, a local human rights organisation, said the majority of the assailants were soldiers, using the threat of their weapons and the power of their uniforms against the displaced women.
“When they get the chance, they rape,” he said.
Farhiyo Ahmed Mohamed, a Somali police officer who heads a special Gender Unit, concedes that men in uniform have been involved in such attacks.
She points to a case of rape earlier this year in the town of Goof Gaduud, outside Baidoa, in which a soldier was convicted and jailed.
However she accused NGOs of lying about the rate of rape in the camps to get more funding and denied the camps were unsafe, pointing to a police station near Hanano 2 camp.
This is just one of the 168 camps scattered across Baidoa that hold more than 155,000 people.
– Gang rape –
Somalia has been mired in civil war for decades and while international support is helping rebuild national institutions, such as the army and police, the process is gradual and incomplete.
One night in January, nine women in another camp, Buur fuule 2, were raped by a gang of men in civilian clothes wielding guns and knives.
Each woman was dragged from her shelter and raped multiple times by different men, according to ISHA, which has taken up their case.
In separate interviews, five of the women shared similar accounts of the night’s violence. Two said their husbands were held at gunpoint during the rapes, while neighbours were also threatened into silence.
A 37-year-old victim of the attack said rape was common, though mass rape was not. She mentioned another woman in the camp, who was raped a few days earlier and so badly beaten that she had to be taken to hospital.
Another NGO, the Somali Children Welfare and Rights Watch (SCWRW), showed AFP a list of 45 women raped and sexually assaulted this year.
Aid agencies acknowledge the growing problem of sexual assaults on the most vulnerable, but say Somalia’s multilayered crisis means other problems are given priority.
“The recent influx of displaced families, who have fled the food crisis in the region, has resulted in an increase in rape attacks and other gender-based violence,” said Evelyn Aero, of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) charity.
“Programmes that aim to improve protection of women are generally underfunded,” she said, “even though attacks, such as gender-based violence, increase during emergencies.”
– No shelter, no safety –
Hawo said that despite being raped by a soldier, she wants armed security in Dusta.
Since her attack in March, she has moved her shelter closer to the AMISOM perimeter and feels safer. Others said sturdy homes of stone and tin — not flimsy huts of rags and sticks — was what they wanted, not more men with guns.
“Shelter, or the lack of it, has very far-reaching implications,” said Gavin Lim, a protection officer with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).
“Beyond survival, shelter is necessary to provide security and ensure personal safety and protection, and to ensure privacy and dignity, especially for women and girls.”
But as the drought deepens and the threat of famine looms larger the dangers are set to grow.
More than 377,000 were uprooted in the first three months of 2017, taking the number of those internally displaced by conflict and drought in Somalia to more than a million, a figure the UNHCR expects to triple by the end of this year.