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 Somalians displaced by drought and hunger.
As he raped her in her home made of sticks, plastic and old fabrics, Hawo’s youngest child, a breastfeeding 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 to Somalia (AMISOM), which is fighting al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda-aligned insurgency committed to overthrowing the internationally backed government in Mogadishu.
However, residents have said 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 al-Shabaab controlled areas who came to the regional capital in search of food, water and medical care.
An Agence France-Presse (AFP) tally of figures given by two local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) showed 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 organization, 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 Somalian police officer who heads a special gender unit, concedes that men in uniform have been involved in such attacks.
She pointed 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 camp Hanano 2, one of the 168 camps scattered across Baidoa that hold more than 155,000 people.
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 men in civilian clothes wielding guns and knives. Each woman was dragged from her shelter and raped multiple times by different men, said 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 neighbors were also threatened into silence.
A 37-year-old victim of the attack said rape was common, although 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 a hospital.
Another NGO, the Somali Children Welfare and Rights Watch, 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 said 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 charity.
“Programs that aim to improve protection of women are generally underfunded, even though attacks, such as gender-based violence, increase during emergencies,” she said.
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,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees protection officer Gavin Lim said. “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.”
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