Page last updated at 12:44 GMT, Wednesday, 10 June 2009 13:44 UK

Mogadishu's lost innocents

Internally-displaced children in a Mogadishu refugee camp

By Mohamed Olad Hassan
BBC News, Mogadishu

Cradling her baby brother in stick-thin arms, eight-year-old Halima Mayow says little about the incident which wiped out their family in Mogadishu.

But, at a camp on the outskirts of the Somali capital, the only word she does utter - "Mortar! Mortar!" - sums up the tragedy which has spawned two more orphans in this war-torn country.

Internally-displaced children in a Mogadishu refugee camp
Halima Mayow and her baby brother lost their family in a mortar attack

A neighbour tells me a shell landed on the children's family home at a slum in the Siisii area, north of the city.

"It killed the father, the mother and three of the children," Shamso Abdulle said.

"We took these two children with us after their family was buried by the villagers.

"They will live with us because we don't know where their relatives are and we couldn't leave them there."

Intense fighting between forces in favour of the UN-backed government and radical Islamist guerrillas has triggered a human exodus from the bullet-pocked capital since the second week of May.

The UN refugee agency says more than 100,000 people have been forced out of their homes during the recent bout of bloodletting.

Orphans under trees

It leaves an estimated half a million internally displaced people languishing on the outskirts of the city.

The tiny body of 30-day-old Sahali Haji Abdi lies trembling, as a doctor looks for a bullet in his abdomen

Oxfam's co-ordinator for the failed Horn of Africa state warned last week that the crisis in Somalia was Africa's worst for many years.

According to figures gathered from the cemeteries, hospitals and residential areas by local human right groups, more than 200 people have died over the last month alone.

"Nearly 300 others were injured," said Ali Fadhaa, of the local Elmen rights organisation.

The crump of mortars; the crackle of gunfire; eerily empty streets; prowling guerrillas and looters; sprawling refugee camps; hospitals overflowing with casualties, their bodies smashed open by bullets, shells and shrapnel - these are the everyday scenes of life in Mogadishu.

Those who have managed to flee the carnage have done so with little more than sleeping mats and the clothes they wore.

Sixteen-year-old Ma'ey Kheyrow and her baby brother
I lost my parents when we were separated by gunfire as we ran out of our village
Ma'ey Kheyrow, 16

Food is scarce, water is very costly and there is no sanitation, though some refugees have access to water tanks donated by local non-governmental organisations affiliated to international aid groups.

Relief efforts have been hampered by the lack of security, poor infrastructure and harassment from government soldiers.

As well as her own children, 24-year-old Sahra Ahmed Dahir is caring for six orphaned youngsters under a tree in the Elasha neighbourhood, south-west of the city.

"We're looking for shelter but it's very expensive. I have no-one to support me and and nowhere to go," she said.

"My husband died a week ago before we came here. He was hit by a stray bullet, while trying to go out to bring food to the children."

The internally displaced people's camps are full of young people who have been separated from their adult relatives during the fighting.


Sixteen-year-old Ma'ey Kheyrow has been left caring for her baby brother after losing her parents and sister.

Civilian casualty in Mogadishu
Civilians are taken to hospital in cars, carts and wheelbarrows

"I only remember a week ago we were separated by gunfire as we were running out of our village in Mogadishu," she says. "We ran in two different directions and since then I haven't heard of them."

Civilians end up slaughtered daily in the crossfire.

The gory civilian by-product of the mayhem can be glimpsed in the city's three hospitals: Medina and Keysaney (run by the International Committee of the Red Cross) and Daynile (run by Medecins Sans Frontieres).

Just 30 days old, the tiny chalky grey body of Sahali Haji Abdi lies trembling on an operating table in Medina Hospital.

His little stomach is slit down the middle.

A nurse tells me a doctor is searching for a bullet in the baby's abdomen; I can see a large hole in his lower back.

Sahali's frantic mother awaits the results of the surgery outside the operating theatre.

"Me and my family were about to flee a house in Jungal [north Mogadishu] when the bullet hit my son," she said.

"I only realised he was hit when I heard him cry out and saw blood streaming out of a cot he was lying on."

Casualty convoy

Whenever there is fighting, a convoy of cars, minibuses and trucks deliver civilians to the already overflowing hospitals.

Gunman in Mogadishu
Radical Islamist guerrillas have sworn to topple the UN-backed government

Those without motor transport have to rely on wheelbarrows or carts.

Dr Mohamed Yusuf, a surgeon at Medina Hospital, told me they could not cope with the patients because of a lack of beds and staff.

"We have the medicine provided by Red Cross, but there are few doctors and nurses," he said.

The hospital has only 100 beds but is often coping with four times that number of patients, many lying on tables, the floor or tents in the corridors.

There are few certainties in Somalia, but one thing seems depressingly inevitable: as battles continue to rage in Mogadishu, more innocents like Halima, Sahali and Ma'ey will endure suffering beyond their tender years.

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