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Somali "just wants to start over" in Cambodia

Somali "just wants to start over" in Cambodia

F ROM one country of war, Somali refugee Mohamed Salah Mohamed has come to another - Cambodia - to seek a better life.

In a reversal of Cambodia's history of its people fleeing abroad, Mohamed, 29, believes this country offers him better prospects than his own troubled land.

With nine of his immediate relatives killed in Somalia's bloody civil war, and still carrying bullet fragments in his body himself, he left his homeland nearly two years ago to look for a fresh start.

His search has taken him through three countries and seen him stowing away on a ship, using false passports to travel and being put in prison and a detention camp.

He found himself in Cambodia in November and, determined not to return home, is waiting to see whether the government will grant him asylum as a refugee.

"I never thought I would be a refugee but circumstances have made me one," he said. "I don't want to go back to Somalia, there is nothing left there for me but death."

A former cashier for a 2000-hectare government-run agriculture project in Somalia, he has lost most of his relatives in the country's war.

He said his father and five brothers were killed when their car was hit by a rocket. Soon after, he returned to his house one day to find it had been shelled, and his wife and two children killed.

He himself was later shot, and suffered injuries from a plastic explosive bomb in late 1992.

Pointing to his head and his right hand, where scars mark where bullet fragments remain embedded in his bones, he said quietly: "I was standing at the edge of my grave".

He decided to flee Somalia in early 1993, after three months of "not knowing where or who I was" because of his bomb injuries.

Stowing away on a ship, he made it to South Africa but was refused asylum there. Officials told him only returnees to the country could be accepted as refugees.

He stayed there for several months, befriending an Indian family, Moslems like himself, who raised money at their local mosque to send him abroad.

They paid for an air fare to Malaysia - and provided him with two passports belonging to other people.

He said the first, a Zimbabwe passport of a person who looked similar to him, was given on the understanding he would use it to leave South Africa and then destroy it. He did so, then traveling on a Costa Rican passport which his photograph had been inserted into.

In Malaysia he sought help from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but said he was told they could only help Asian refugees.

He decided to try his luck in Thailand and caught a train there in September last year.

Arrested at the Songkhla border by Thai immigration police who detected irregularities with his Costa Rican passport, he said he was jailed in a provincial prison for nine months.

He was then moved to a Bangkok detention center for illegal immigrants, where he said conditions were bad.

"Human beings would not even dare to treat their dogs like that."

The UNHCR's Bangkok office told him they accepted he was a refugee but could do nothing to help him.

After six months, a group of missionaries who were allowed to work at the center won his freedom by bribing guards to let him escape.

The missionaries bought him a one-way air ticket to the cheapest, nearest destination - Cambodia - and, still with his Costa Rican passport, he arrived on November 1.

He visited the UNHCR office in Phnom Penh the next day and they agreed to refer his request for asylum to the government.

He was told he will be given $50 a month to live on in the meantime. He was put in contact with Jesuit Refugee Services, who arranged accommodation for him.

Hopeful of being allowed to stay in Cambodia, he has been going around NGOs seeking employment.

"I desperately want to start my life again," he said.

The head of the Interior Ministry's immigration department, General Lour Ramin, could not be contacted for comment on Mohamed's case.

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