Camp leaders are doing it for themselves

Managing camps for displaced people is usually a complex business involving aid agencies, governments and elaborate coordination mechanisms.

Not in Somalia, however, where years of violence have forced hundreds of thousands of people to take refuge in remote camps that are largely inaccessible to agencies or the authorities.

The internally displaced people (IDPs) have had to learn to manage on their own, with most camps run by committees of volunteers. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there are an estimated 1.4 million Somalis displaced and scattered across the country, 524,000 of whom live in the Afgoye corridor, a distance of 30km from Mogadishu. Satellite images have identified 92,439 temporary shelters in the area.

Zahra Osman, a mother of eight, chairs one such committee at Bilal camp in Arbiska, 20km south of Mogadishu in the corridor.

"I was chosen by the members of the committee to be their chairwoman because they thought I was the best suited for the position," she said. The camp has 250 families, about 1,500 people.

"I am honest, fair and more active than most of the men. It also helps when the majority of the committee of six members are women; we have four women and two men."

According to a civil society source, camp committees are dominated by women for two reasons: the majority of people in the camps are women and children, and many of the women are heads of household, having lost their men, and the only breadwinners.

Osman's duties include dealing with aid agencies on behalf of camp residents, conflict resolution within the camp and with other camps.

"Sometimes fights break out inside the camp or with another camp; we sit down with the two sides and try to resolve whatever caused the problem," she said.

The fights, she added, could be caused by children quarrelling, drawing in parents, or, more seriously, when adults fight over property. The committee's decision is final and both sides are expected to obey.

"In the two years I have been chairwoman, I cannot recall one incident when our decision was disobeyed," she told IRIN on 24 March.

Ali Ibrahim Bilal is another camp leader at Jima'le IDP camp in the Afgooye corridor, where 763 families (4,578 people) live.

Doctors helping the displaced in Lafoole camp in the Afgoye corridor

He was chosen by his committee because at 64 he is an elder and because of his religious background. The camp, he said, is divided into neighbourhoods, each consisting of 40 families.

"Those 40 select their representative to the camp committee, which in turn selects the chairman," he said, adding, "You could say I am the leader of my camp."

The Jima'le camp committee has 11 members, five of whom are women, he said.

The committees mainly "advocate the rights of the displaced, deal with food distribution and resolve conflicts".

On most occasions the residents will abide by the ruling of the committee, "but on the rare occasion when someone disagrees, we involve whoever is in control of the area", he said.

Religion matters

Sheikh Abdullahi Sheikh, leader of Shamo IDP camp where 643 families (3,858 people) live, was chosen because he is a religious leader.

"People tend to trust religious leaders," he said. "We don’t have a government we can turn to when things go wrong as they always do when people live in overcrowded conditions."

No aid or government agencies are present in the camp, he added, "So we have to look after ourselves. The camp committees don’t only resolve conflicts, but also serve as aid workers," Sheikh told IRIN.

Each member of the committee is supposed to report when any person or family in his or her neighbourhood needs help. The members, who are not remunerated, also collect money or medicine to help IDPs who fall ill and cannot afford to go to a doctor.

"If a family member is sick, or there is no fire in a family's home [because there is nothing to cook], we go around to those who may have something to give and take it to those who need it," he added.

"We try to make a very difficult situation a little more bearable."