Almost 50,000 people flee Mogadishu since March 21; more expected
NAIROBI, Kenya, April 2 (UNHCR) - An estimated 47,000 people have fled the Somali capital Mogadishu since the latest fighting erupted in the coastal city on March 21. The exodus is expected to continue and UNHCR has sent its local staff to assess needs in areas where most people are fleeing.
The UN refugee agency, which based its figures on information provided by non-governmental organisations in Somalia, said a total of 56,000 people had escaped Mogadishu in the whole of March and 40,000 in February.
The Ethiopian-backed Transitional Federal Government captured Mogadishu in early December from the Islamic Courts Union, but there has been a steady exodus from the city since clashes erupted in early February. Media reports have said the latest fierce fighting pits Ethiopian troops against Islamist insurgents and local militias.
Most of the estimated 47,000 people displaced from the capital since March 21 have headed to neighbouring provinces. About 29,000 civilians arrived in Shabelle Hoose (Lower Shabelle) in March, joining some 20,000 who had fled there in February. Some 17,000 have gathered around the town of Afgooye and more than 10,000 in Marka.
A further 17,000 people have headed to Shabelle Dhexe (Middle Shabelle), north of Mogadishu. Some 2,700 people have also moved more than 700 kilometres north-west of the capital to the town of Galkayo and its environs, where many have clan and family links. UNHCR has a presence in Galkayo.
"I have never seen such a displacement in the last 15 years. It reminds me of 1991, when the central government collapsed," said one of UNHCR's local partners in Afgooye, west of the capital. "Most of the people fleeing are women and children who attempt to escape by any means available, including cars, trucks, buses, wheelbarrows, donkey carts and even on foot."
Many of the displaced in the Shabelles have settled by the roadside because they have no local ties and cannot afford the soaring rents, according to UNHCR's local partners, who said they had little access to potable water, food or sanitation. They said people were begging, sleeping without shade and suffering from diarrhoea and cholera after drinking contaminated river water.
"Our Somali staff in Mogadishu are trying to make their way to areas where people have fled. But the problem is that the security situation is making it difficult for humanitarian organisations to reach displaced people," UNHCR spokesman William Spindler was quoted as saying by the BBC.
Many people are making their way further and further from Mogadishu, due to dwindling resources and deteriorating conditions in the overcrowded rural towns and villages. Local communities have been sheltering relatives and those affiliated to their clans, UNHCR's partners said, while adding that even they were finding it hard to cope with the influx.
In Mogadishu, UNHCR's local partners said it takes up to four hours to leave the city as the streets are so crowded with people trying to get out. They also reported that some civilians were unable to flee for fear of mortar fire and they added that child soldiers were seen taking part in the escalating fighting.
And once people exited the city, they still faced harassment and theft by militias at illegal checkpoints. There had also been reports of women and girls being raped.
Growing numbers of civilians are being killed, but the wounded have little access to adequate medical care. One of UNHCR's partners said 280 people had been admitted to Mogadishu's Medina hospital since the latest fighting flared, adding that scores of civilians had died from their wounds.
By Catherine Weibel in Nairobi, Kenya