The wind hollers, whipping up dust that scratches at our faces. As I fumble with my notebook, a thorny branch of the drought-resistant Mathenge tree hits me in the face and Yaroy Sirat Muhammed, with an infant in her arm, immediately reaches out to hold the wayward stem so that it doesn't happen again.
I thank her sheepishly and urge her not to bother, but she does not let it go.
Yaroy is a Somali refugee, temporarily pulled out of a queue of hundreds of others who are waiting to complete the registration process at the IFO camp in the Dadaab refugee complex in Kenya, to talk to me.
We sit down while she tells me her story.
Yaroy travelled to Dadaab without her husband. She says that the situation on their farm in the Bay district of southern Somalia had deteriorated to such an extent that her husband told her that, should their neighbours suddenly pack up and leave for Dadaab, she was to take the children and accompany them - even if that meant leaving him behind.
And that is exactly what happened, except two of Yaroy's children were also left behind when the local community began their exodus.
"He went to the market that morning with two of our children and the neighbours were preparing to leave, so I took the emergency money and left with the other four children," she explains.
Yaroy says that although there hadn't been any rain for four or five years, al-Shabaab's ban on aid agencies assisting farmers, coupled with the fact that the family's goats and cows were dying off, convinced her it was time to leave.
"We once had 100 goats ... but [when we left] only ten were alive and the few cows we had died," she says, adding: "I had no hope that rain would come any time soon."
Yaroy's story is not unique.
In fact, the majority of the families travelling to Dadaab from towns across southern and central Somalia - often distances exceeding 200km - are led by women. The UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, said on Wednesday July 20 that more than 80 per cent of those fleeing Somalia are women and children.
The only males among those arriving are young boys or elderly men.
It is a striking sight - thousands of women and children, but a notable absence of men.
Benedicte Goderiaux, Amnesty International researcher and author of In the line of fire, speaks to Al Jazeera:
"According to the overwhelming majority of Somali refugees we have interviewed, it is al-Shabaab which has been responsible for widespread, forced recruitment of children and young men in the past four years. That does not mean that other parties to the conflict have not recruited children into their ranks, but it suggests that other parties to the conflict do not recruit children on the same scale.
Many people told us that they fled Somalia for Kenya to escape recruitment of child soldiers by al-Shabaab. We have also heard some testimonies saying that sometimes teenagers and young men have been prevented from escaping Somalia by al-Shabaab, presumably to be recruited in its ranks, but this did not seem to be a widespread pattern.
Many children we have talked to have also told us of being separated from their parents and other relatives during unpredictable occurrences of fighting, as people flee in different directions in the ensuing chaos. Other children have told us that their father was killed back in Somalia, or brothers recruited by al-Shabaab.
Recruitment has [also] taken place in Dadaab although it is difficult to say whether it is still a concern today. Refugees have complained about insecurity in the camps and say that there are members or sympathisers of al-Shabaab in the camps; some [even] say that al-Shabaab recruits in the camps, although Amnesty International has not been able to document this further.
In late 2009, young Somali refugees and Kenyans of Somali ethnicity were lured and recruited in and around Dadaab, by Somali agents, and trained by the Kenyan security forces in Kenyan military training camps with the aim to fight for the TFG in Somalia. A 20-year-old Somali refugee who escaped one military training camp in Kenya told Amnesty International delegates that there were refugees under 18 years of age who were lured into the training and that recruits were held and trained against their will. The Kenyan government has denied recruiting refugees or children. There has been no further reports of recruitment for the TFG in Dadaab since.
While all sides to the conflict (TFG and pro-TFG militia on the one hand, and al-Shabaab and other armed groups on the other) are accused of recruiting and using child soldiers, it is clear from Somali refugees' testimonies that al-Shabaab is the main culprit in recruiting child soldiers. Their recruitment methods have been increasingly threatening and include raids on schools, abductions of children in public places, and death threats against those who oppose recruitment. In some areas controlled by al-Shabaab, the recruitment of child soldiers has become systematic: any child living in al-Shabaab controlled areas is at risk of being recruited to their ranks.
The presence of child soldiers in the forces fighting on the side of the TFG is reported, but seems much less widespread than in al-Shabaab's forces. However, it is worrying that, despite TFG commitments to children's rights, they have yet to agree with the UN agreement to demobilise children from its forces."
In some ways the phenomenon is not difficult to understand. In pastoralist Somali societies it is not uncommon for men to be away from their families for long periods of time as they search for new land on which their animals may graze.
Families often split up as a method of survival, with women taking responsibility for the children while men remain behind in the hope of saving the remaining cattle or accruing a little more money so that they might make the journey to rejoin their families.
Andrew Wander, Save the Children's emergency media manager, says that many pastoralist farmers will not leave their livestock until their last animal has died.
"The cattle are their wealth, their assets, and they will try to save them at all costs.
"And because it is not safe to be left alone in farms, especially with no food available, the women and children [often] move with the neighbours or other relatives to safer areas where they might access food to survive," he says.
It is a story corroborated by many of the women at the Dadaab refugee complex.
Thirty-one-year-old Makanoor Hassen says she had a last meal of maize at home before leaving with her three children. Her husband stayed behind to look after the animals while she embarked on the six-day walk to Dadaab.
Sahar Abdi Mohammed's journey to the refugee camp took 17 days. She says her husband will join her, her four daughters and three sons "if he is able to".
Fathima says it was too expensive for her husband to join her on the journey to Dadaab and that while she was unhappy to leave him behind, she thanks God for arriving safely.
A woman sitting beside her explains how she made the journey with her three children because her husband had to stay behind to tend to his ailing mother. "I'm not comfortable to be here without him," she tells me.
And then there is 28-year-old Ilma Ali Isak, who I meet sitting alone on the ground outside the food distribution tent. She is about eight months pregnant and travelled in the back of a lorry for five days with complete strangers before waiting for eight days at the camp to be registered. |
She sits on the floor, surrounded by the basic essentials - pots, food and bedding - provided by the UN, wondering how she will carry her new belongings. Her husband did not accompany her to the camp because he was too ill to travel and she says she now "has no choice" but to look after herself.
Fear of abduction
"The men are probably dead, or fighting, or [they] stayed behind to look after the livestock, and will probably come later, or they might not have had enough money to come with the family," says Jane Alice Okello, a senior protection officer with the UNHCR.
"Many men give the little money they have to the truck drivers to transport the wife and children here."
Okello is quick to clarify that each case is very specific, and that it is difficult to generalise.
She does, however, admit that there is a general haziness when it comes to retrieving the details of where the young men are.
"The young adult males are missing from this population ... some of them say that their sons were abducted or that they left them behind, especially those coming from Lower Juba, who say that al-Shabaab would abduct them on the way," Okello says.
Abduction is a recurring theme when talking to the aid workers at the camp who say that many new arrivals concede that that their young men stayed behind out of fear of being abducted by al-Shabaab and forced to fight in the ongoing civil war with the forces of the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG).
But few want to talk about it, and even fewer will admit that their sons are fighting - perhaps fearing reprisals from supporters of either al-Shabaab or the government.
As a result, a myriad of uncomfortable questions hang over the silence currently surrounding the whereabouts of the men.
But Amnesty International (AI) says that claims of forced military service need to be taken seriously.
In a new report called In the line of fire, the group says that, since 2006, there has been a massive drive in Somalia to recruit young boys, mostly between the ages of 12 and 18, to fight in the country's civil war. AI alleges that both the militant groups and the Somali army are guilty of recruiting child soldiers.
Benedicte Goderiaux, Amnesty International's Somalia researcher and the author of the report, told Al Jazeera that Somalia "is not only a humanitarian crisis, it is also a human rights crisis and a children's crisis".
"The humanitarian crisis is chronic; this latest phase has been in the making for some time and is partly due to violations of the laws of war by parties to the conflict," Goderiaux says.
AI alleges that refugees fleeing Somalia have been stopped by al-Shabaab at checkpoints near the border regions, with young men being prevented from leaving the country "presumably to become soldiers".
While relief workers at Dadaab say some refugees have alluded to leaving their sons behind in the hope of protecting them from such a fate, Goderiaux says that mass "recruitment drives" are also taking place in mosques, schools and on the outskirts of Somali towns.
Goderiaux suggests that far from people leaving their sons behind, "on the contrary, many people told us they fled Somalia to Kenya to escape recruitment of child soldiers by al-Shabaab".
But Okello says that refugees have told her that their boys are often safer staying at home with their fathers, rather than travelling with their mothers and sisters.
Vulnerable to abuse
Either way, the marked absence of men among the new arrivals at Dadaab has left women and children vulnerable to abuse.
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Okello says it poses some distinct challenges. With so many new refugees arriving and no space for them in the existing camps, where they might be monitored and protected, many are being forced to organise their own housing on the outskirts of the camp, where they can fall off the UN's radar. This leaves them reliant upon the surrounding community for protection.
"The influx is creating chaos, making facilitation and monitoring - two crucial aspects in dealing with new arrivals - extremely complex. Because the refugee complex cannot accommodate the demand, families are settling outside the main camp in spontaneous settlements," Okello says.
"Once they leave registration, we don't know where they are going and then the exploitation takes place in the camps."
"They are even more vulnerable because there are no male heads of families, and people take advantage of the situation," Okello explains, adding that there have been cases of men walking into the unguarded homes in the "tent city" on the outskirts of the main camps and attacking both women and children.
Orphans, in particular, have been targeted.
According to UNICEF, 358 incidents of sexual and gender-based violence have been reported at Dadaab between January and June of this year. There were 75 reported cases during the same period last year.
Save the Children's Wander says that the abuse, including rape, "sometimes starts during the journey itself".
Katherine Grant, an emergency officer with UNICEF Kenya, concurs.
"While many face the possibility of attack along the border in Somalia even before they enter Kenya, women and children are also exposed to violence en route to the camps once they cross the border, as well as once they have settled at the camp," she says.
More than 90 per cent of the women arriving at the camp are accompanied by four or more children and Grant says that the dire conditions they face are creating dangerous precedents "as desperate children and women try to meet their basic needs through harmful and exploitative work, including child labour and commercial sex work".
"We are concerned by the large number of female headed households with small children who are on the move which makes them more vulnerable and puts them at risk of opportunistic attacks and exposure to violence," Grant explains.
Some children have found a degree of respite in a foster care programme run in the camps where, according to Okello, "children can be adopted" and cared for by other families.
According to UNICEF, a total of 394 un-accompanied minors have been placed with foster parents.
Around 300 foster parents have been trained by UNICEF and half of these have been set up in income generating activities designed to empower them to support their foster children.
But Okello says the influx of refugees has even impacted the functioning of this system and describes it as "overburdened by the number of new arrivals".
"Most of these families are exhausted. They cannot take children anymore," she adds.
But there are some signs of improvements on the horizon.
Grant says that now that Raila Odinga, the Kenyan prime minister, has announced the opening of a fourth camp at the Dadaab complex "the UNHCR is now planning the relocation of many of the families [currently living on] the outskirts [of the complex] to the IFO extension".
And for their part, "UNICEF are at the advanced planning stages of constructing temporary schools and child friendly spaces for the children," Grant adds.
This institutional support might take time to materialise, but on the ground small miracles occur all the time.
Yaroy Sirat Muhammed says, despite the hardship she faces, she is lucky. Her cousin heard that she was travelling to Dadaab and came every day to the reception centre in the hope of finding her.
Ebrahim Bashir Mohammed, Yaroy's cousin, who has been living in the camps for the past three years, offered Yaroy and her children a place to stay until they settled in.
In another stroke of luck, Ilma Ali Isak literally bumped into some of her former neighbours at the reception centre. Newly arrived refugees themselves living on the outskirts of the camps - away from the sanitation and health services offered in the main complex - they offered her a place to stay until someone in the community builds her her own tukul, made from branches and twigs stitched together with dry grass and covered with a large UNHCR plastic sheet that will ultimately resemble a displaced igloo and become Ilma's home.
"We are all new ... all of us. Whatever we get we will share," says Ilma's neighbour Shakaro Salat putting an arm on her shoulder.
Follow Azad Essa on Twitter: @AzadEssa