SIXTEEN-year-old Rukiyah Abdukadir was collecting firewood outside a refugee camp in Ethiopia when she was raped, her attack underlining the risks facing the thousands of people fleeing drought.
The young Somali, whose family was forced to leave their home when their crop failed, says a man asked to use her axe. When she refused, he attacked.
“I fell down, then he grabbed my neck and he used my body,” she said.
“There’s not enough safety in the camp,” she said, sitting in a bamboo hut in the complex in southern Ethiopia’s dust-blown Kobe.
The severe drought has forced tens of thousands of Somalis to flee to camps in Ethiopia and Kenya to survive.
But life is still tough, with food supplies and shelter often inadequate and relief groups overwhelmed by the huge influx of desperate people.
Abdukadir says life is better in the camps than in Somalia, but she wishes her new home was more secure.
About 78,000 Somalis have fled this year alone to Ethiopia to escape the drought ravaging the Horn of Africa, hitting Somalia the hardest with famine declared in several southern regions.
Incidents of sexual violence are relatively low but aid workers warn the situation could worsen.
“I just think the camps will become more violent as time goes on,” said Jo Hegenauer, the emergency coordinator for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The United Nations has recorded 87 incidents of sexual violence in the camps but UN statistician Susanne Butscher admits data collection is imprecise since not all women report abuse or rape.
UNHCR spokeswoman Laura Padoan said incidents of rape, although isolated, are worrying. She said two cases have been confirmed recently in a newly opened camp. One case involved a young man raping a child.
“Obviously this is very disturbing behaviour,” she said. “(But) I don’t think there’s an endemic risk,” she added, noting that there were fewer men in the camps than women and children.
The majority of refugees in Ethiopia’s camps are children, who account for 87 per cent of the population. Fewer than 10 per cent of the refugees are men.
But overcrowding and idleness can breed violence, Hegenauer said.
“Camp life is not real life,” he said. “It is a really frustrating existence and that spawns all sorts of frustration and violence.”
The refugees live in tightly packed settlements, particularly in the transit camps, one of which hosts 8,000 refugees in a space designed to hold 1,500.
Poor sanitation, lack of clean water and a recent measles outbreak have worsened the already harsh living conditions.
A training ground for Somali transitional government troops not too far from Helaweyn, Ethiopia’s newest refugee camp, is another source of insecurity.
One aid worker said the presence of the troops “may possibly undermine the humanitarian nature of the camps”.
A UN official also expressed fear about the risk of rape in camps in neighbouring Kenya.
“Hopes of finding a safe haven are often overshadowed by new dangers and hardships, including the risk of rape,” said Margot Wallstrom, the UN representative on sexual violence.
She urged humanitarian actors to offer protection to women in the camps and support rape victims.
Abdul Abrahaman, who also fled Somalia, said that after Abdukadir’s attack, the women in the camp were too frightened to search for wood.
“The boys are looking for firewood because the women are afraid,” he said.
Abdukadir said she has no plans to return to Somalia and, despite her assault, was better off in the refugee camp.
“I’d like to stay here for life,” she said.