Tough times for Mogadishu exiles in Puntland's Galkayo
GALKAYO, Somalia, November 22 (UNHCR) - Mana stubbornly refused to leave her house as violence swirled around the Somali capital of Mogadishu for most of this year, but 10 days ago she was finally stunned into fleeing the city. The catalyst: an artillery shell landed on the house next door, killing two adults and two children.
"My neighbour was crying, asking for water. I brought him some and saw that his body had been cut into two pieces by the explosion," Mana recalled earlier this week in Galkayo, located some 700 kilometres north of Mogadishu. The man bled to death and Mana decided to flee with her seven children before they suffered the same fate.
"I could take no belongings with me," Mana told visiting UNHCR staff during a week when the UN refugee agency announced that by its latest estimates - compiled from data provided by local partners - the number of displaced people in Somalia had topped the 1 million mark.
More and more people are following earlier exoduses and leaving the besieged capital. UNHCR said on Tuesday that 60 percent of the population, or some 600,000, are believed to have fled the capital since February, including some 200,000 in the past two weeks. Most are heading for areas near Mogadishu, but increasing numbers are going much further afield to places like Galkayo in Somalia's Puntland.
Mana has found shelter with her sister in a miserable cardboard-and-rags hut in one of the crowded settlements for internally displaced people (IDPs) that have mushroomed on the outskirts of Galkayo. She's just one of an estimated 2,000 people who have fled here from Mogadishu in the past fortnight, joining some 50,000 other people displaced in earlier waves.
Last weekend, the UN refugee agency distributed non-food items such as plastic sheets and blankets to 2,500 people in a rural IDP settlement north of Galkayo, where some of the families fleeing Mogadishu have arrived.
Many of the new arrivals in Galkayo told UNHCR they fled the capital after seeing relatives or friends being killed by shelling. Some stopped in Afgooye, some 30 kilometres west of Mogadishu, but decided to carry on because the basic services were insufficent.
Like most women in her settlement, Mana makes a small income - about 10,000 Somali shillings (US$1) a day - from collecting garbage. Sacks of rubbish are piled up next to her shelter, as the owner of the land where the dump is located recently reclaimed his land.
She complains bitterly about the difficulties of daily life in Galkayo, where she can only afford to feed her family once a day because the fresh wave of displacement has led to rising costs. "My children used to drink camel milk in Mogadishu, with one litre of milk costing only 500 Somali shillings. But in Galkayo, a single glass of milk costs up to 25,000 shilling (US$2) and now my children can drink only water."
Even water comes at a price. "The only water that comes for free is salty," Mana noted. "We are so poor that we tried to drink it several times, but we did not succeed," she added.
The new wave of arrivals has created a pressing need for proper shelter, food, water and sanitation in all the Galkayo settlements. Women complain about the lack of latrines, which forces them to seek somewhere secluded on the edge of town and thus makes them more vulnerable to rape.
Just getting to Galkayo is an achievement. Those fleeing Mogadishu have to run a gauntlet of illegal checkpoints set up by militias and gangsters to extort money from passing vehicles. One woman told UNHCR she was stuck with her three children for nine days at one checkpoint because she had no money or belongings to hand over.
Another mother, Fatuma, said that all the passengers on her bus to Galkayo were robbed even thought the driver had paid a fee to armed men at a roadblock. "They even took the clothes of my eight-month-old baby," she said, adding that four women were raped and she was only spared because she was breastfeeding her child.
Many families in Galkayo worry about relatives left behind in Mogadishu. Asha, who fled the capital with 5 of her 7 children, said she could not sleep or eat because she was so worried. "I have no news of my two eldest, who remained in Mogadishu because I could not afford transportation for all my family," she explained.
"I also left my husband behind because he was too sick to travel. The three of them moved to a safer neighbourhood within the city but the idea that they might be wounded or dead tortures me," Asha added.
While all those questioned said they felt safe in Galkayo, many complained about the cost of living and said they would return to the Somali capital once stability returned. But others had had enough of the years of conflict and wanted to leave Somalia once and for all. They were thinking of heading to the northern coast of Puntland and making the perilous sea voyage across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen.
By Catherine Weibel in Galkayo, Somalia