GALKAYO, Somalia — The three masked gunmen burst into Asha Muse Ali's tent at night and grabbed every item of value they could find: $85 in cash, a cell phone and a gold ring.
Then the attackers embarked on a crime that carries a severe social stigma in this conservative Muslim country: They raped Ali and her aunt.
Ali and her family are among almost 60,000 internally displaced people in the central Somali town of Galkayo, where hundreds of families have sought refuge from violence in Mogadishu and in south-central Somalia. But once there, the women risk being raped.
Aid workers say the number of rapes are alarming and that in some cases, they are fueled by young men watching pornographic videos.
The Galkayo Education Center for Peace and Development said it has documented 51 cases of rape against women in Galkayo this year. Last year the center recorded 104 cases, most of them inside the refugee camps. Many more cases go unreported.
"The number is bigger than what we recorded because there are women who suffer in silence for fear of reprisals, divorce or allegations that they consented to the act," said the center's Saado Mohamed Ise.
Antonio Guterres, the head of the U.N.'s refugee agency, expressed outrage about the rapes as he toured camps in Galkayo and Bossaso last week.
"That is a heinous crime and it needs to stop. It is a central human rights question," Guterres said. Refugees also told him they lack food, education, health care and proper shelter.
The U.N. refugee agency says more than 12,000 people have fled Mogadishu since Oct. 1. Somalia hasn't had a central government for nearly 20 years. Much of Mogadishu is ruled by violent Islamist militias who impose conservative social rules on families and mete out harsh punishments for violations of the social code.
Rape as a weapon of war has occurred in many countries across Africa, most notably in Congo. Rape and other kinds of sexual violence are a reality in Somalia as well, although rapists are widely despised here. Al-Shabab, the country's most powerful Islamist militia, has sentenced men to death for sexual assaults.
Violence against women in Somalia can trigger clan wars. The family of an accused rapist will pay monetary or livestock compensation for sexual assaults. Somali families have also arranged marriages between the rapist and the victim to clear the victim from the stigma associated with rape.
Some camp residents and aid workers blamed some of the sexual assaults on a new prevalence of pornography, which can even be seen on cell phones. The top official in Somalia for the U.N. refugee agency said he has received reports that youths "first heat up themselves before they go out and hunt down women."
"It is appalling that the women in the camps are raped by youth gangs with total impunity after watching pornographic films," Bruno Geddo said.
Ise said three rapists were arrested last month but freed after their victims left Galkayo, a sprawling city jammed with tents and tin shacks and that lacks a proper judicial system to try rapists and social resources to help victims.
Ali, 45, whose tent was broken into, said she won't alert authorities about the masked men who raped her even if she recognizes them. Ali's aunt, Muna Aden, who was also raped during the Nov. 26 attack, nodded.
"No. I won't inform on them because I'm afraid for my life," Ali recounted in an interview.
The Associated Press does not identify victims of sex crimes as a matter of policy but both women gave permission to use their names and take their photographs in order to publicize the dangers they face and the poverty they live in.
Women who collect firewood in the bush or walk in darkened refugee camps risk being attacked.
When the men armed with pistols, a dagger and an AK-47 rifle broke into her tent, Ali, who earns $1.50 a day washing clothes and cleaning houses, dragged her sleeping children – ages 10 and 8 – out of the way. The gang ransacked the tent. Ali implored them: "Brothers, you've got what you wanted, can you please go away and leave us alone? Please don't rape us."
Instead, the three gunmen took turns raping her.
Next Muna, 35, was raped. Her husband, pinned down by the assailants, could do nothing. The assault ended with Muna being stabbed in the thigh.
"Allah! Allah!" she screamed. The attackers ran away.
The police arrived a half-hour later, asked a few questions and left. In the morning, Ise's aid group took the women to the hospital.
"I have experienced enough hell on this world," said Ali, whose husband was shot dead two years ago in Mogadishu.
The attackers who raped Asha and Muna are not likely to be punished, said Ise.
"It is not uncommon to have a criminal walking freely in the streets of the town the day after the night he raped a woman," she said.