Fighting forces thousands to flee famine-ravaged Somalia

AFP , Thursday 22 Dec 2011

Almost 300,000 refugees have fled severe drought, conflict and famine in Somalia this year into Ethiopia and Kenya, according to UN estimates

Somali journalists carry the slain body of their colleague Abdisalan Sheikh Hasan during his funeral in southern Mogadishu, December 19, 2011. (Photo:Reuters)

When famine ravaged southern Somalia earlier this year, camel herder Ibrahim Mohamed refused to join the thousands fleeing for help, vowing to stay on in his homeland to save his dying animals.

But after Islamist Shebab gunmen stole his last two camels to have survived the drought and then ordered him to join their militia, he had no choice but to flee with his family to Ethiopia.

"We fled because no one is going to force me to take up a weapon and fight the government," he said, sitting under the scorching midday sun in southern Ethiopia's Dolo Ado refugee camp.

Over 300,000 refugees have fled severe drought, conflict and famine in southern Somalia this year into Ethiopia and Kenya, according to the United Nations.

Now, a surge in fighting between the Al-Qaeda linked Shebab rebels and government forces backed by African Union troops and Kenyan soldiers is forcing thousands more to flee.

Hundreds of refugees are arriving in Dolo Ado daily, up from some 20 two weeks ago.

"I decided to run in order to save my life," Mohamed said. Government troops moved into his Shebab-controlled village in the Bakool region in early November, with fierce firefights breaking out several times each week.

"We could hear fighting taking place and people were getting killed," Mohamed said, who escaped with his wife and six children under the cover of darkness.

The family walked in the blistering heat for three days until they reached Ethiopia, where they are waiting to be assigned a tent and food rations.

While the threat of a fully fledged famine has receded in some regions over the past weeks, millions still need relief and the UN has said it would need $1.5 billion to address the crisis next year.

Experts say the end of the rainy season has made traveling easier, prompting the spike in new arrivals, while conflict along the Somalia-Kenya border has restricted movement into Kenya's Dadaab refugee complex, the world's largest.

"The numbers moving towards Kenya are dropping, which may also account for why greater numbers are heading towards Ethiopia," said Stiofainin Nic Iomhaird, the UN refugee agency reporting officer in Dolo Ado.

Iomhaird expects the influx to increase in the coming months, as the dry season sets in again.

"People may be more desperate and unable to find their own coping mechanisms, and so we do expect that the numbers may go up again," she said.

A fifth camp opened in Ethiopia late November, after a fourth camp opened in August for 25,000 people filled to capacity within just six weeks.

But construction of the Bur Amino camp is delayed, leaving thousands of refugees stranded in the overflowing transit centre for months.

"We are suffering since we got here because we got sick, have diseases, but we have no option but to stay," said Somali refugee Abshiro Isakbul, squatting in a makeshift tent outside the transit centre.

After suffering through months of famine, war broke out in her village, forcing her to flee on foot with her three-year-old son in early December.

"The people don't have anything left, the drought killed most of the animals, and Al-Shebab have forcefully taken away our farms," she said sullenly.

Health and sanitation are deteriorating in the transit centre, stretched at almost double its intended capacity, with now nearly 8,000 refugees based there.

"The place is not designed for that amount of people -- it's overcrowded, and the sanitation, water and food is not adequate," said Voitek Asztabski, emergency coordinator for Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

"The longer they stay, their health status goes down," he added.

But, like Isakbul, most have no choice but to stay. As the war in Somalia rages on, returning home is unlikely for the thousands of refugees that have fled in recent months.

And though Ethiopia's camps offers temporary respite, the situation remains dire for most.

Under a tarpaulin outside the transit centre, refugee Mohamed Gure shelters with his family, after escaping Somalia with his wife and two children when fighting erupted in his town.

"We are in trouble, we are not happy," he said, noting he does not receive food rations. "But there (Somalia) we were between life and death."

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