MOGADISHU, Somalia – Ayan Ali Hassan decided to leave Mogadishu when militiamen boarded her school bus and kidnapped two screaming boys. For Abdi Gadir Osman, the moment came when a mortar slammed into his mother's home, killing her while she slept on a hot afternoon.
They are among some 20,000 Somalis who decided to flee their homeland this year, heading to the Dadaab refugee camp in eastern Kenya where they recalled a life of terror in Mogadishu.
For the refugees, this dusty, sweltering expanse is still a better home than their wretched capital. Just 50 miles from the Somali border, many see the camp as a last resort.
In more than a dozen interviews with The Associated Press, the newest arrivals from Mogadishu told of relentless shelling and gunfire. Several children said their friends were forcibly recruited into militias. And they all described frantic escapes, with many walking for weeks to reach Dadaab, hitching rides on donkey carts or squeezing into strangers' cars.
"I couldn't live in Mogadishu anymore, my whole family would have been killed eventually," said Osman, 25, who left Mogadishu three months ago, hours after identifying his mother's body. He begged a ride in a car with a crowd of strangers, holding up his daughters — age 2 and 4 — to persuade the driver.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, said Wednesday that Somalia faces one of the world's worst crises along with Afghanistan, Iraq and Darfur.
"Dadaab represents a desperate cry, a cry of these people for peace in Somalia," Guterres said as he toured the camp, visiting medical clinics and speaking to refugees who live in ramshackle huts made of sticks and plastic tarp.
The population in Dadaab has reached nearly 200,000 people, packed into about 20 square miles of desolate, wind-swept dirt where little grows beneath the withering sun. Last year, more than 30,000 Somali refugees sought asylum here as their country saw some of the most deadly violence in its history.
Thousands of civilians have been killed in Somalia since 2007, caught in vicious disputes over ancient clan loyalties, religion and government. The country has not had an effective central government since 1991, when warlords toppled dictator Siad Barre and carved Somalia into armed camps ruled by clan law.
Somalia's shaky transitional administration was formed in 2004 with the help of the United Nations, but has failed to assert real control. After Islamic militants seized control of Mogadishu and most of southern Somalia, the government called in troops from Ethiopia in December 2006 to oust them.
An insurgency started soon afterward, and remains a potent and disruptive force. Rebels set land mines and attack police posts and the Ethiopian troops respond with deadly force, witnesses say.
The country also is facing a worsening humanitarian crisis aggravated by high global food prices and drought.
Dr. James Ndirangu, who works at a hospital in Dadaab, said the new arrivals display a range of problems — from malnutrition and psychosis to rape, torture and blast injuries.
"People come in with deformities," he said. "Missing eyes. Missing limbs."
He said mental health problems are rampant in the camp. He keeps a poster on the wall of the hospital detailing 10 danger signals of suicide.
"Loss of a loved one," reads one, "and a persistent wish to die."
Hassan, 14, was among several teenagers who said militiamen would troll around schools — sometimes even entering classrooms — to recruit boys as fighters.
"It happened twice a month," said Hassan, who came to Dadaab with her parents six months ago after armed men kidnapped two children from the school bus.
"The teachers couldn't stop them, because teachers can't stop a man with a gun," she said.
But while the camp is safer than lawless Mogadishu, Dadaab offers only the most meager existence. Designed to help desperate people survive, the camp was never meant to be a long-term home.
"Dadaab is my home, but it's a prison, too," said Hakimo Adow Sandur, an 18-year-old who came here in 1991. "I know this place was never meant to be permanent, but it is permanent for me."
Many longtime refugees lament the fact that they cannot leave the camp to make a life in Kenya. The government has strict rules requiring them to stay, arguing that integration into Kenyan life is not a "durable solution" for refugees.
There are schools here, but only 4 percent of teachers are professionally trained. There is approximately one latrine for every 20 people. Materials such as tarps and mud bricks, used to build shelters, are distributed to new arrivals, but quickly degenerate in the sand and harsh sun.
Food, such as maize meal and vegetable oil, is doled out twice a month.
Options for the future are limited.
Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, peered into a hut housing Fatuma Abbas Muse, 66, who came here in 1991 — the year the camp was established. He asked her to compare life in Somalia to life in Dadaab.
"Here, you feel better?" he asked.
Muse, who sleeps on a dirt floor surrounded by pots and jerry cans, answered quickly.
"At least I feel peaceful here," she said.