Displaced Somalis brings tales of "unbearable" life in Mogadishu
BALCAD, Somalia, April 3 (UNHCR) - Thousands of people have been flooding into this small town north of Mogadishu saying that life in the Somali capital has become unbearable. They are part of a massive exodus from battle-torn Mogadishu that has seen almost 100,000 people flee the city since the beginning of February, including some 47,000 in the last two weeks.
Most of the displaced civilians have been heading to the neighbouring provinces of Shabelle Hoose (Lower Shabelle) and Shabelle Dhexe (Middle Shabelle). The trigger for the massive outflow has been fighting between insurgents and local militia and the Ethiopian-backed Transitional Federal Government, which captured Mogadishu from the Islamic Courts Union in December.
More than 17,000 fleeing civilians arrived here in the Balcad district of Middle Shabelle in March, according to information provided by non-governmental organisations in Somalia. A UNHCR staff member reached Balcad town, located some 35 kilometres north of Mogadishu, on Monday and said the district seat was relatively calm thanks to a stable local administration.
New arrivals spoke of the chaos inside Mogadishu and the problems they have encountered in trying to reach safety. "Almost all of the people have left behind their belongings and brought only what they could carry in their hands. Some families left behind their young men to protect their homes," said the UNHCR staff member in Balcad.
"People look worried, miserable and hopeless. All they carry are small items such as paper bags containing a few clothes, mattresses and cooking utensils", he said, adding that those leaving Mogadishu had told him "living there had become unbearable" and they would not return until the security situation changed.
Many locals have compared the situation to the mass movement which followed the fall of the Siad Barre regime and the ensuing civil war in Somalia more than 15 years ago. People, mainly women and children, have been leaving the insecure Somali capital either on foot or on small vehicles, trucks, buses, wheelbarrows and even donkey carts. Some families have left weak, sick or elderly family members behind in Mogadishu.
The new arrivals here said transport costs had risen dramatically while the displaced had to negotiate frequent illegal checkpoints on the congested roads. The cost of the road trip from Mogadishu to Balcad had risen from 10,000 Somali shillings to 30,000 Somali shillings (US$7.50 to US$22.50).
Some of those arriving said drivers had to give money to militias at checkpoints to ensure safe passage and added that some people had been attacked at illegal checkpoints at night.
About one quarter of those arriving in Balcad said they planned to keep on going until they reached the towns of Jowhar and Beleyt Weyn, some 100 kilometres north of Mogadishu. Many of those remaining in Balcad were staying with relatives while those with no ties in the area were forced to find work to survive - some laboured as porters in the market.
UNHCR has basic supplies - plastic sheeting for shelter, mats, jerry cans - for up to 5,000 families in a Mogadishu warehouse, but the facility is in a "no-go" zone. As soon as the situation stabilises, the refugee agency plans to distribute these materials to the displaced in the Shabelle provinces.
Prices have soared both here and in Lower Shabelle since the exodus from Mogadishu began, making life even tougher for the displaced as well as the local community. Housing costs have risen five-fold, while the price of staples such as sugar, rice and flour have all soared over the past few days, according to UNHCR staff.
In addition, there is a shortage of potable water because Balcad has only one functioning well. More than 40 percent of the displaced cannot afford the high charges demanded by local entrepreneurs and are forced to drink contaminated water from a local stream, raising fears of diarrhoea and cholera outbreaks in a district with almost no medical facilities. Private pharmacies have raised drug prices by 50 percent. The rising prices are also affecting the local community.
Similar problems are being faced in Lower Shabelle, where new arrivals are finding it almost impossible to find accommodation because of the high prices. Displaced Somalis with no relatives or clan links are living under trees, on the roadside or out in the open. Without proper shelter, water, food or sanitation, many are resorting to begging for their survival.
Further south, displaced Somalis arriving in the port city of Kismayo have met a hostile reception from town residents who are reportedly charging even for the use of shade under trees.