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Living in Somalia's danger zone

Fleeing Somalis

By Mohamed Olad Hassan
BBC News, Mogadishu

The once-bustling streets of Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, are now eerily empty.

The southern neighbourhoods are littered with the scars of recent fighting between the insurgents and Ethiopian-backed forces of the transitional government.

Ethiopian tanks have taken up positions outside the houses of the hundreds of thousands of residents who have fled the city - estimated to be 60% of the city's population.

Forty-two-year-old Shamsa Nur Ali was one of those who could stand it no longer.

Empty road in Mogadishu (Mohamed Olad Hassan for the BBC)
This Mogadishu street used to be full of activity

Towards the end of last month she sought refuge with her children and her aged mother in Daynile, on the southern outskirts of Mogadishu.

The family of six now lives under a tree where they depend on relatives nearby - also displaced by the violence - and are lucky to get one meal a day.

Before their departure, the family had considered itself fortunate as Mrs Nur's husband had a wheelbarrow and could earn an income from transporting goods for people in the market.

"We are suffering enough. No shelter, no food and no hope," says Mrs Nur.

"Plus there is the fear that the fighting could spread here and drive us away again."

Malnutrition

Her husband, Mohamed Issaq, finds the situation equally depressing.

"I am not comfortable about it, but there is nothing I can do," he says.

Sometimes the food runs out and sometimes the agencies do not come
Fadumo Khalif
Displaced Mogadishu resident
"There is no work and it is too dangerous to go back to market."

Other Mogadishu families have trekked to the neighbouring provinces of Middle and Lower Shabelle - the area was once the country's breadbasket - for safety.

But the region has been hit by floods and drought.

Prices of basic goods have shot up, meaning many Somalis cannot afford to buy food, leading to widespread malnutrition.

Aid workers estimate that 100,000 displaced people are now living in the villages between Mogadishu and Afgoye, along the road that links the capital to the south.

Both local and international aid agencies are doing their best to help.

Destitute

They hand out plastic sheets to make improvised shelters and have organised the distribution of what food and water supplies are available.

42 year old Shamsa Nur Ali  (Mohamed Olad Hassan for the BBC)
Shamsa Nur Ali (l) fears the fighting could resume any day
They admit it is not enough.

Every morning destitute Somalis line up in their thousands to receive a handout of corn, beans and oil.

"We sometimes line up for food early in the morning and go back to our children at sunset empty-handed," complains Fadumo Khalif, a 26-year-old pregnant mother, with a baby strapped to her back.

"Sometimes the food runs out and sometimes the agencies do not come."

Fear and mistrust

Both the federal government and the regional authorities have called for people to return to their homes but no-one heeds these calls because they say "the troops are still sitting in front of our homes".

Rumours abound, reinforcing their terror - some say the Ethiopian soldiers deliberately shot civilians as they tried to run away from the fighting.

Our only hope lies in the new prime minister taking steps towards peace
Mustafa Aden
Mogadishu resident
Others say that in the city streets that became battlefields more than 50 civilians were found dead, some beheaded.

Islamist insurgents melt into the community, from where they carry out random attacks on the Ethiopians, who they see as an occupying force.

"If outnumbered they went into hiding as before, regrouping when the security operations lessen," says Mogadishu resident Jama Abdulahi.

"The only solution lies in peaceful negotiations.

Haji Hassan Abukar, 65, believes that "all respect for human life has been lost".

"I never fled from my house in the last 16 years... but this time I felt unsafe because even old people like me were killed," he says.

Endless cycle

Many residents were trapped for long periods in their homes, fearing they would be shot if they emerged.

Ethiopian troops in Mogadishu
The Ethiopian troops are not popular in Somalia

"We could not even go out to buy food, there was no water, we were left with no safe place to go," Abdi Aden told the BBC by telephone.

For many, the newly appointed prime minister, Nur Hassan Hussein, also known as Nur Adde, brings a glimmer of hope that this endless cycle of violence can be ended.

Mr Nur has been the head of the Somali Red Crescent for many years and is seen as untainted by political affiliation.

"Our only hope lies in the new prime minister taking steps towards peace," says another Mogadishu resident, Mustafa Aden.

"If he supports peaceful dialogue, I hope things will be sorted out."

Like Mr Aden, other residents say the only resolution to the humanitarian crisis is to put an end to the violence that has forced so many to run for their lives.

But for that, Mr Nur has to build a consensus, reach out to the opposition and give all the Somali factions a perspective that does not involve looking down a gun barrel.


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