Volunteers keep the peace in Dadaab camps

Friday, August 12, 2011

By John Davison

A husband and wife argue over food and money. Friends and relatives intervene and the dispute escalates into violence. Except that some of the participants can’t help smiling as the action unfolds. For it is actually part of a training exercise for the extraordinary volunteers of the community peace and security teams (CPSTs) on the front line of law and order in Dadaab.

The system, devised and delivered by ACT member Lutheran World Federation, will be extended to new teams picked from among the 100,000 refugees from Somalia who have come to the camps this year. After their month-long training, which begins this week, they will make up new CPSTs in the camp extensions that are opening in emergency response to the influx. Their job will be to keep the new sites safe for traumatised refugee families escaping drought and insecurity at home.

In charge throughout has been Samwel Cheruiyot, an ebullient former Kenyan policeman who is LWF’s senior safety and security officer. “When the question of structuring the camps came up, I stressed the importance of community policing,” says Cheruiyot, 36. “It’s working very well, and all the other agencies here now factor these teams into their work. Anything related to the community, they will serve it well.”

Filling a Big Gap
He has only two national staff in his headquarters office, but five Somali refugee supervisors in each of the three camps who act as his “eyes and ears”. In total, 269 people are part of the CPSTs, a figure is due to rise to 350 when the new training round is complete.

The numbers contrast sharply with those for the regular police in the area. There is currently one police officer serving 15,000 people in Dadaab. This compares with a national average of one for 650 members of the population and an international standard of one for 450, says Cheruiyot.

“There is a big, big gap and the CPSTs are filling that gap,” he says. “I believe that they do a great job.”

Tensions never far away
Initially it all sounds fairly low-key. But in the densely-populated camps, tensions are never far away and things can quite quickly turn nasty. One recent incident, another water dispute between different parts of the community resulted in six people being hospitalised with machete cuts. It was all over within 15 minutes.

“We deal with cases of domestic violence, quarrelling, people causing a disturbance and cases involving the youth,” says Abdi Moalim Mohammed, the vice chairperson at Dagahaley. “All criminal cases—such as rape, robbery, violence against children or murder—are referred to the police.”

Indeed referral to the police is the main sanction the CPSTs have in every case. Most people prefer to have their disputes sorted out by local elders and religious leaders. Again, it is the only way that the low level of police numbers in the area can work.

Hence the need for new recruits, and quickly. There seems to be no shortage of volunteers, however, and one afternoon Cheruiyot addresses the first 21 recruited at the Ifo extension site and introduces them to the existing CPST members who will carry out most of the training. “You need to be alert, get to know each other. These old CPSTs they know a lot. Ask these people what to do. They will tell you,” says Cheruiyot.

Image: ACT/PWSD/Barb Summers