GALKAYO, Somalia (WOMENSENEWS)--The man who raped 8-year-old Amina still keeps his shop a few hundred meters from the stick-and-rag shelter where she lives with her mother and three baby sisters. Her friends know what to do when they see him.
"If we see him, we run and hide," said Amina, who four months ago fled Mogadishu with her family for a camp called Bulo Kontrol on the outskirts of the central Somali town of Galkayo.
Chubby-cheeked with a stubborn tilt to her chin, the child in her olive green abaya hasn't got much more than a tough front and swift feet to protect her.
Until the early 1990s Galkayo was little more than a gathering point for camel-herding nomads.
That changed in 1991 when dictator Mohammed Siad Barre was driven from power and Somalia's civil war flared up. Members of a powerful sub-group of the Darod clan left Mogadishu to build a city of their own here, bringing their militias with them.
Today this dusty town on the dividing line between restive central and southern Somalia and the relatively peaceful autonomous state of Puntland serves as a beacon of stability. Here a densely packed warren of low stone buildings is spiked with delicate minarets of mosques gleaming white and blue in the desert sun. A handful of schools, small businesses and a brand new hospital testify to a steady trickle of remittances from relatives overseas.
But in a society where the power of one's clan is the only real guarantee of safety, it can be extremely risky for girls and women such as Amina and her mother who have lost the protection of elders and their entourage of militias.
Rapes Unchecked in Camps
Last year the United Nations, together with dozens of local organizations, conducted a survey on rape in Galkayo's nine settlements, which hold tens of thousands of displaced people.
"Rape is rampant," said Hawa Aden, chair of the Galkayo Education Center for Peace and Development, who helped conduct the survey. "We have been saying this for quite some time. But since 2006, the more people come, the more it happens. And not only the rape; it is the camps themselves that are dangerous."
In interviews with Women's eNews, women and girls who fled Mogadishu for Galkayo in recent months and did not want their real names used--including Amina and her mother--described rape, robbery and beatings as they traveled through militia checkpoints blocking roads out of the city and as they settled in camps far from the clan connections that once might have afforded some security in the south.
Galkayo's reputation for stability nonetheless continues to draw people from all of Somalia's five main clans.
"Everybody knows of Galkayo as a peaceful place," said Madina, who arrived in Galkayo last month and is from the minority Somali Bantu group.
Madina said she left Mogadishu with three of her six children after insurgents broke into her house and forced her younger sister to carry a paper-wrapped parcel past a group of Ethiopian soldiers. The gunmen detonated the bomb by remote control, killing Madina's sister and then ran, leaving the enraged Ethiopians to trace the bomb to her family.
"Mogadishu is the worst," she said.
No Safety in Fetid Camps
But the fetid camp where she and her family share the tiny shelter of a generous stranger--a man in his 30s who gave his name as Hassan--is hardly safe, particularly for minorities like her.
"I was very sorry after my wife went out to use the toilet. She was raped by a gang," said Hassan. "I saw and I could not say anything because I would have been killed. You can't try to fight with them with sticks. Unfortunately they have guns. Our wives are being used by them."
Many gangs carry knives in case they come across a girl who has undergone female genital mutilation and then had her vagina stitched nearly shut to safeguard her chastity, a custom of many families here.
A woman is only as safe as her clan is formidable.
Aliya, a 55-year-old woman from Bulo Kontrol whose name has been changed, is certain that the man who pushed through the cloth door of her rag hut to rape her in early December knew that she was not from a powerful clan.
"I don't think they would have raped me if I were Majertan," she said, referring to one of the most powerful sub-clans in Galkayo.
Though two of her nephews tried to chase the man, neighbors warned them not to. Shaming the men could only bring more trouble to the camp.
Even if they had caught him, nobody can remember that a rapist has ever been convicted in a Galkayo court.
The man who raped Amina was charged with robbery and taken to jail for a couple of days. Though a minority himself, the man had been born in Galkayo and had influential relatives, who quickly let the child and her neighbors know they'd best stop talking about rape.
Amina's mother cannot afford to run. Work is scarce for displaced people who live in Galkayo. She still depends on the man who raped her daughter for the dime a day he pays her for the rubbish she collects from the town's roads. She sees him every day.
"When I see him, I cry," she said.
Recently a local women's group offered to rent a house for the family so they would not have to live next to the man. But Amina's mother does not dare move away from the few people she knows here. Two of her children have already died of malnutrition. Her neighbors are the only protection she has.
"I already know the people who live around my hut," she said. "Sometimes I'm away and they take care of my children; they provide food when we have nothing to eat. I have priorities."
Most days, Amina has to watch her younger sisters while her mother works but, twice a week, she attends a religious school, where the teacher has agreed to waive her fees. As her mother speaks, she makes her way seriously through the Arabic alphabet, her small fingers punctuating the curling script from right to left with wobbly dots.
Is her mother sure this is the best place she can find for her children?
"I have my doubts. If I can go some other place I would go happily," she said. "But I fled Mogadishu and I don't feel any place in Somalia is better than this place now. My hope is that my girls would go to school and learn something so they can survive."
Zoe Alsop is a freelance journalist based in Kenya. In December she traveled to Galkayo on assignment for Women's eNews.
This series is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
For more information:
Galkayo Education Center for Peace:
UNIFEM Portal on Women, Peace and Security, resources on sexual violence and conflict:
Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children:
Note: Women's eNews is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites and the contents of site the link points to may change.