MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — Chatting women sitting outside makeshift homes at night is a new scene in a once-dark refugee camp in the Somali capital. In a city where darkness brings the threat of attack, recently installed solar lights are helping to ward off sexual assault.
Women living in Mogadishu's hundreds of refugee camps often stay and don't use communal bathrooms at home at night because of the threat men armed with knives and guns pose to them. With the installation of 79 solar-powered lights by the Danish Refugee Council in a camp known as Zone K, life has returned to Mogadishu's nights.
"It feels like we are starting a new life," Sadiya Hussein, a mother of four, said while resting with other women on a sandy spot near their homes, which are made out of sheet metal or sticks and cloth. "Because of the lights we can come together to chat and get some fresh air. No rapist can sneak in now. It's fully lit and better."
Since a devastating famine struck Somalia in 2011, refugee camps in Mogadishu have held tens of thousands of people fleeing both hunger and violence. The number of rapes rose sharply, making the simple act of going to the bathroom a life-risking activity.
"They simply came and waited for women between their house and bathrooms," said Fatima Nor, who said she was once attacked but escaped when her husband intervened. "We really feel a little bit safer than before. I think having light scares the predators."
Mohamed Bundu, the Mogadishu director for the Danish Refugee Council, said that in addition to the extra security the May installation of the lights brought, they are also helping children study and businesses attract customers.
"All the criminal acts that were often committed because of the darkness have considerably gone down," he said.
The 79 lights erected on tall poles in the Mogadishu camp cost about $2,000 each.
Heather Amstutz, the regional director for the Danish Refugee Council, said the group has also installed solar lights in northern Somalia. The projects ask for buy-in from the communities they serve, which reduces the threat of vandalism or theft. The projects are paid for by U.N. funds.
The lights "add five productive hours to these small settlements. Kids can study by the light, the vendors are selling their vegetables by the lights," she said.
A U.N. monitoring group report on Somalia published last month said there are 530 camps in Mogadishu housing internally displaced people, 75 percent of whom are women and children who are particularly vulnerable to sexual attacks. The report said officials recorded 1,700 reported rapes between January and November 2012.
The report said there were probably more attacks that weren't reported and that the number of reported rapes was higher than previous years.
Attackers frequently wear government police or military uniforms, though the government has consistently denied its forces are responsible.
Despite the positive impact of the solar lights, one past sexual violence victims says she still doesn't feel safe.
"I see that the lights are helpful but they cannot, sadly, prevent the rapists from coming," the veiled 30-year old woman said while standing at the door of her home. "We are still exposed to the rape attacks because no one protects us."
Salad Ahmed, a 40-year old father of six, feels the lights are beneficial. Most camp residents can't fight back against attackers who wield guns or knives during attacks. Ahmed, though, has an axe and sword to protect his wife.
"The more you can see your enemy the more you can plan how you should engage him," he said.