DHOBLEY, Somalia — In the roughhouse town of Dhobley in southern Somalia people are watching their lives slip away.
Local farmers and pastoralists have seen their crops withered and pastures turned to dust by consecutive years of failed rain, their cattle have mostly died and now their camels are wasting away too.
To lose their livestock is to lose their savings and income at once. People here have been made paupers by the drought.
Every day new arrivals come from the famine zones to the north. They treat the border town like a waiting room, hanging about listlessly in the hope of food aid but there’s not enough and it doesn’t come often.
Local officials say most of them give up after a couple of days then continue on foot for another 60 miles to Dadaab in Kenya, where over 400,000 Somali refugees live in the world’s largest refugee settlement.
The area’s most powerful militia, Ras Kamboni, watch everyone warily. They are suspicious that Al Shabaab, the Islamic extremists that are fighting to control Somalia, might try to fight their way back in to the area following their eviction after days of battle in April.
The nearest Al Shabaab fighters are only 12 miles away but a Ras Kamboni intelligence officer insists the town is under his group’s tight control. It’s hard to argue with his assessment: Militiamen in new green uniforms with shiny AK47s are everywhere.
Charging down the dust roads are Land Cruisers customised into battle wagons: the roofs sawn off, Russian-made PKM belt-fed machine guns welded on where the passenger’s wing mirror ought to be and bolted to the flatbeds are DShK heavy machine that can fire .50 calibre rounds big enough to bring down a plane.
In a tin-roofed room with unpainted, plastered walls, punctuated by glassless windows sat some local officials: a militia commander, the district chairman and a representative of local civil society organization.
“Dhobley is the entry point to Kenya for [internally displaced people, IDPs] from all over Somalia,” said Abdinasir Serar, the civil society representative, who worried that the growing population was stretching local resources to breaking point.
“There is overcrowding because of the IDPs, grazing land is almost zero ... ”
The district chairman, Sheikh Abdirahim, continued the list … “We have no health facilities, there are only two boreholes in town. We tell people our problems but nothing is done,” he said.
The boreholes are next to one another and provide the only available water to people and animals alike. Hundreds of camels stood stoically as caravans of emaciated cattle trudged towards the concrete drinking trough.
Somalia has been at war for more than 20 years and now its drought and famine is causing a refugee crisis as each day thousands of people leave their bone-dry homes and set off in search of help.
Most cross the border to the camps in Ethiopia and especially Kenya where aid agencies are providing life-saving care to hundreds of thousands of refugees, but aid workers say preventing people from ever becoming refugees is a better solution.
“We have to invest to protect their animals and their livelihoods because this will protect their futures,” said Luca Alinovi, Somalia country director at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), during a recent visit to Dhobley.
The intertwined fate of the Somali famine victims and their suffering cattle and camels is evident at Dhobley.
The FAO wanted to find ways to allow people to stay at home and not become refugees. The evidence from Dadaab’s 20-year existence, Alinovi said, showed that when Somalis become refugees they do not go home.
“Everyday when animals come to town for water they leave carcasses behind when they go,” said Serar. A mile or so from the boreholes is a patch of land where the bodies are dumped, fly covered skin, bones and bared teeth rot in the sun.
Not all the reasons why Somalia become refugees can be traced directly to the conflict and the famine. The economy is also to blame. In Dhobley’s ramshackle market Abdullahi Abdirahman has beans, rice, vegetables and cooking oil for sale, but few have the money to buy his goods.
A few steps away Mako Mohammed has brought a stock of 1,000 bundles of hay to sell because prices in Dhobley are nearly double those in the Al Shabaab-controlled port city of Kismayo where she lives, but business is proving slow.
Markets across southern Somalia have been crushed by lack of demand, falling supply, food price inflation and local barriers to trade like the two Shabaab roadblocks between Kismayo and Dhobley where taxes are extorted and supplies diverted to fighters.
One FAO official calculated that in Dhobley food was cheaper than fodder, proof of the desperation to keep the animals at the heart of the economy alive.
“Livestock is their life, there is nothing more important, not even the life of an individual,” said Alinovi who has worked in Somalia for many years. “Animals are the custodian of a clan, individuals are just members.”
More from GlobalPost: Famine stalks southern Somalia
This is why, counterintuitive and politically difficult as it may be, FAO is proposing a $70 million programme to feed and vaccinate animals in Somalia. The money would also be used to distribute locally-sourced seeds ahead of the October rains and set up a “cash-for-work” scheme that would pay people to renovate local irrigation channels and water catchments while providing money with which they can buy food on the local market and help breathe life into the economy.
“We want to help people in Somalia so they don’t become refugees,” said Cristina Amaral, FAO’s emergencies chief. “It is difficult because of the security situation but we need to step-up our support inside Somalia.”