ALI ADDEH, DJIBOUTI // Hassan Said is the most popular man in this refugee camp. A protection officer with UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, Mr Said is shadowed by a crowd of two dozen Somalis as he picks his way through the sprawling mass of stick and plastic tents. The group of refugees surrounding Mr Said becomes hostile and begins shouting complaints. An old man needs medicine for his stomach. A man with one eye needs a new tent after his was destroyed in a storm.
A rail-thin 38-year-old woman with the gaunt face of a 70-year-old squats in the red earth in front of Mr Said and begins to cry. She is suffering from tuberculosis, she says, and has not received her supplemental food ration. Mr Said can only note the requests and tell the crowd he will bring it up with headquarters. "Everyone has an issue," he said. "I can't help everyone. We need more partner organisations."
The violence and anarchy that has accompanied Somalia's two-decade civil war has created the worst humanitarian disaster in the world. One third of the country's nine million people are in need of food aid. More than one million have fled their homes for camps within Somalia. The lucky ones have managed to leave the country entirely. Refugee camps in northern Kenya are swollen with 250,000 people.
Here in the rugged mountainous desert of south-west Djibouti a dozen kilometres from the Somali border, more than 9,000 refugees live in squalor. But unlike the Kenyan camps, which have international organisations providing relief services, this camp in Djibouti, a tiny country on the Red Sea, is run almost entirely by an overwhelmed UNHCR staff. The camp is constantly expanding. A radical Islamic insurgency has waged war against the weak Somali transitional government during the past two years causing thousands to flee. About 100 refugees arrive each week in the Ali Addeh camp, according to Mr Said.
"The camp is growing," he said. "We are still receiving people from south and central Somalia. Many people are telling of the indiscriminate shelling of towns. Whole families have been killed by rocket fire." Most of the new arrivals come from Mogadishu, the Somali capital and one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Mogadishu and central Somalia experienced the worst fighting between al Shabab, the hardline Islamic militia that is fighting to turn Somalia into an Islamic state, and Ethiopian troops.
The Ethiopians pulled out early last month and al Shabab has continued its fight against African Union peacekeepers and rival militias. The United States considers al Shabab a terrorist organisation with ties to al Qa'eda. Aicha Araleh arrived at the camp in November after her neighbourhood in Mogadishu was shelled. She gathered her five children and headed north on the eight-day journey to the Djibouti border. Her husband, a furniture maker, stayed behind and she has not heard from him since she arrived.
"We had to go," said Mrs Araleh, 37. "It was difficult to wait any longer. The clashes were everyday. You can go out to the store to buy sugar and not know if you will make it back alive, or know if the family you left in the house will be alive if you make it back." The rural existence in the camp is a change for residents of urban Mogadishu, but some have been here for more than 15 years and are used to it. At least here there is food, shelter and, most important, security.
"Sometimes I cry alone when I think back on my experience," Mrs Araleh said. "I think back on my nights not eating anything. I remember the stress of not knowing if you are going to live through the day. When I remember those nights and those days, I cry." Two hours away in Djibouti's seaside capital also called Djibouti, a different class of Somali refugees are staying at a five-star hotel. The Somali parliament met in Djibouti late last month to elect a new president after Abdullahi Yusuf, a former warlord-turned-president, resigned in December.
The 275 members of parliament had come to Djibouti because it was too dangerous to meet in Somalia and because this is where the opposition Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia is based. After parliament added 200 MPs from the ARS in a UN-brokered power-sharing deal and elected Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the ARS leader, as president of Somalia, the MPs became stranded in Djibouti when their seat of government was overrun by al Shabab.
The MPs "are like refugees", said one diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorised to speak publicly. "Some might stay in Djibouti, some might go to Kenya, but they can't go back to Somalia at this time." The international community has high hopes for Sheikh Sharif, the new Somali president. Since he is a former member of the opposition and the leader of the Islamic Courts Union, which briefly ruled Somalia before the Ethiopian invasion, he is seen as being able to unite the warring factions and build a strong coalition.
"It was very encouraging to see that once Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed was elected as the new president the other candidates all pledged their support to him and he committed himself to keep in close touch with them all as often as possible," said Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN special envoy for Somalia. But his biggest challenge will be to convince a hardline faction of the ARS and al Shabab to put down their weapons. Sheikh Sharif arrived on Saturday in Mogadishu on a visit to consult with local leaders. The UN hopes the Somali MPs will be able to return to their country this month to begin work.
The Somali refugees in the Ali Addeh camp are unaffected by the politicking of their parliament just up the road in the Djiboutian capital. They follow the news and know what is going on, but most are focused on getting resettled in the US, Canada or Europe and have no intention of returning to Somalia. "We heard about what the government is doing, but I am pessimistic," said Mohammed Ahmed, 41, a refugee from Mogadishu living in Djibouti. "Somalia has a lot of problems. It is never going to end. We will never go back to Mogadishu. There is too much fighting."