DHOBLEY, Somalia // Somalis with new uniforms and guns they say were bought by Kenya's government are supposed to be guarding the Somali-Kenya border against Al Qaeda-linked militants. But many do not get paid, and some sell their weapons or prey on refugees fleeing famine.
This new breed of gunman in an area awash with weapons is making the trek from Somalia's parched landscape even more dangerous for thousands of defenceless refugees.
Among the latest victims of the lawlessness were a 13-year-old girl and her two sisters, who fled Somalia with their parents. After the family crossed into Kenya, gunmen stopped their donkey cart, robbed the parents and kidnapped the girls.
The three young sisters were gang-raped for two days before being released, the teenager said, before burying her face in her shawl. It was not clear if the attackers were members of the border militia or outlaws who had bought their guns.
Aid groups operating around the sprawling Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya say many refugees have been attacked by gunmen, some of whom may have come from the so-called Jubaland militia that guards the Somali-Kenya border.
Militiamen "come to the refugee areas and disturb them," said Sabik Shakuku, a Kenyan who receives funding from the Pan African Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution. "We have told the government but they have not taken action."
Kenyan police arrested three deserters from the border force on Saturday for trying to sell their weapons, said Nelson Tatliti, the deputy officer in charge of the police station at Dadaab. "These are the ones causing problems on the border," he said.
A Kenyan government spokesman did not return calls seeking comment. Kenya has long asserted that the presence of Al Shabab, an Islamist militant group that controls huge swathes of southern Somalia near its border, is a major security threat and one reason the government would back a border militia.
Hussein Mohammed, a commander with the Jubaland force, said Kenya "gives us a lot of help because we are fighting Al Shabab."
Clad in a new olive green uniform, he pointed out shoes, vehicles, uniforms and weapons he said were gifts from Kenya. But, he acknowledged, many members of the militia were not paid.
"About 60 per cent of us get paid," said Mr Mohammed, who was guarding the border on a recent day as a convoy of Kenyan government vehicles thundered past, escorting a local militia leader in a vehicle flying the blue-and-white Somali flag. "The rest must share, or go without," he said.
Tens of thousands of people have died in the Horn of Africa drought and more than 12 million people in the region need food aid, according to the United Nations.
Some parents arrive at refugee camps in Kenya carrying children so malnourished their swollen heads loll on stick-thin necks. The arms of others are empty, their dead sons and daughters left behind on the road.
The loose oversight of the Jubaland border force and their weapons creates an additional hazard for the tens of thousands fleeing hunger and violence in Somalia.
The problem is not a new one. Many countries have tried to fund forces in Somalia's long conflict, only to find trainees deserting and their equipment on sale in the marketplace after they were not paid because commanders pocketed their pay cheques.
Such problems dogged a European Union-funded programme to train Somali police, as well as US and Italian-funded programmes for Somali soldiers.
Now the Italians and the United States insist on paying each Somali soldier US$100 (Dh367) in person every month rather than giving money to commanders.
In recent months, the Kenyan army has begun trying to tackle some of the problems of the border militia, a Kenya-based security official said. This includes keeping a tight control on ammunition, screening applicants and tracking down deserters, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the media.
But despite the recent efforts, militia members said they did not know who was paying them, how much or how often. They said wages were irregular and there was little tracking of weapons or ammunition.
"Sometimes we get paid and sometimes not," said Said Dahir, a 23-year-old militiaman. "We only get rice for food, so sometimes we go to the refugee camps [to eat] and come back."
Six deserters said they left because they were not paid and food was scarce. Commanders pocketed most wages and only paid men from their clan, said the men, who withheld their last names from fear of retribution.
The deserters said rifles were changing hands for less than $100, a dramatic fall from the $230 they commanded just six months ago. Some attacks on refugees were carried out by fellow deserters and others were by bandits who bought the weapons, they said.
Ali, who said he deserted after two months, described a commander who was compiling a list of men who had deserted with their guns. The list was very long, he said.
But most deserters were not thieves, he added. They just wanted food and their guns were their only possession of value.
Abdi, a tall, thin 25-year-old, said he received no pay and little food when he belonged to the guard force. It had taken him 10 days to find someone to buy his gun because the market was so flooded with weapons. After he finally sold it, he said he used half the money to buy a bus ticket to a refugee camp. But on the way, gunmen stopped the bus and robbed him of the rest.