Somalis flee violence by militants in capital
MOGADISHU, Somalia - Fearing renewed warfare, hundreds of Somalis loaded up small children and household goods on donkey-pulled carts yesterday in a northern Mogadishu neighborhood where Islamist militants are taking up positions.
Fighters from the militant group Al Shabab dug new trenches and blocked streets with sandbags, residents said, as minivans and wooden carts moved out using alleyways and side streets to avoid sniper fire. Young, barefoot children lugging bags walked for hours with their parents.
Fighting broke out over the weekend and lasted through Monday, killing at least 20 civilians and one African Union soldier. Somali military officials have asked residents near Al Shabab-held areas to leave, and a lull in the fighting has opened a window for a safe getaway.
“We are so lucky to have fled from there safely,’’ Ali Shikhow, a father of six, said as he unloaded his belongings from a minivan at Mogadishu’s Hodan bus station.
“I am sure many people cannot leave because they can’t afford the illogically expensive car rentals,’’ he added. “I paid $150 to get my family and some utensils and mattresses out of there.’’
Seasonal rains in Mogadishu have added to the misery of both residents fleeing the fighting and Somalis living in makeshift hunger camps. A wide-scale famine threatens hundreds of thousands of lives, and tens of thousands of Somalis who fled famine in the south now live in tents made of sticks and cloth in Mogadishu.
Al Shabab has controlled most of Mogadishu for several years, but the group fled the capital in August in what its leaders said was a tactical pullout. The militant group has since returned, though. The fighters set off a truck bomb last week that killed more than 100 people as students tried to learn whether they had won scholarships to attend school in Turkey.
Still, only a few areas remain in militant hands, and African Union troops are trying to push the fighters out of the last strongholds. Large columns of Somali and African Union troops moving toward those pockets in recent days are an indication that new fighting could break out.
“We could not dare stay there because of the daily gunfire and mortars flying around,’’ said Ubax Farah, who fled from Wahar Adde, a semideserted neighborhood in northern Mogadishu where militants ordered residents to not cut overgrown trees because they could provide good cover.
“Everyone is afraid of getting caught by the crossfire,’’ she said. “The only choice is to flee.’’
Rains in Mogadishu have washed out makeshift homes used by Somalis fleeing famine and violence. While the precipitation is welcomed by farmers, the rain is making camp residents miserable and increases the risk of a disease outbreak.
“Difficulties surround us on both sides, so we have to take this new predicament instead of the other one,’’ said Shukri Sheikh Salad, who fled the fighting.
The African Union force said the latest military battle was launched to push militants back to where their mortars cannot hit civilians.
The attacks and battles with Al Shabab come as the Horn of Africa nation continues to suffer through its worst drought in 60 years. Tens of thousands of Somalis have already perished, and the UN says more than 750,000 are at risk of starvation in the next several months.
Somalia has not had a functioning government in two decades. Most recent security gains in Mogadishu have come from the work of African Union forces from Uganda and Burundi.