Somalia

IMC launches operation to aid displaced Somalis as hundreds of thousands flee homes

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Somalia is facing a growing humanitarian crisis. For the past four months, fighting between Islamist insurgents and the transitional government's Ethiopian-led forces has convulsed the capital city of Mogadishu, and thousands of civilians have been caught in the crossfire.

Artillery shells, rockets and machine guns have been fired consistently and indiscriminately by both sides, killing more than 1,300 people in a matter of weeks. Since February, more than 394,000 people have fled the capital, terrified that their neighborhood could become the next battle zone.

Towns close to the capital are being overwhelmed by a constant stream of people desperate for safety. Most of those fleeing Mogadishu have flocked to a cluster of towns southwest of the capital. Displaced Somalis with no relatives or clan links to the area are living under trees or on the side of the road. Illness is rampant: since January, almost 17,000 cases of acute watery diarrhea have been reported in central and southern Somalia, and there have been 593 deaths and nearly 40 confirmed cases of cholera.

In towns like Afgoye, where the influx of displaced people has swollen the population by more than 50 percent, the tremendous demand for resources is causing prices to skyrocket, rendering even host families extremely vulnerable. Prices for food and drinking water have increased as much as 20-fold, and rents have soared way beyond the means of most Somalis. Many people are destitute and have resorted to begging in order to survive. To compound the problem, humanitarian organizations trying to get supplies to towns flooded with IDPs have faced significant obstacles.

But help is on the way for the thousands of Somalis who have converged on the town of Baidoa, 230 kilometers northwest of Mogadishu. There were approximately 19,000 newly arrived IDPs in Baidoa in late April, some of whom had traveled there by foot or donkey. At least 1,000 families are sleeping out in the open. Others are living in flimsy shelters, cobbled together with cardboard boxes and old swatches of fabric, often with no plastic sheeting to protect them from the heavy rains that descend in the evening.

IMC is setting up relief operations to provide access to basic health care to the most vulnerable segment of the displaced population, whose needs might range from treatment for malaria or acute watery diarrhea, to a safe, sanitary place to deliver a baby. Two mobile health clinics will serve IDPs in four camps, with a focus on primary health care, maternal and child health, and health education. In addition, IMC will bolster the capacity of existing health care services. IMC has operated in Somalia since 1991, when it was the first American non-governmental organization to arrive in war-torn Mogadishu following the overthrow of President Siad Barre.

Despite periodic lulls in the fighting in Mogadishu, hostilities between Islamic insurgents and government forces are a constant threat, and civilians fear that the tentative peace will not last. Islamist leaders in exile in Eritrea have said that their fighters have merely receded in order to regroup. One insurgent told the New York Times that insurgents planned on switching tactics. "We're thinking suicide bombs, kidnappings and attacks on government hotels," he said.

If there is any truth to such statements, the suffering-and the tremendous need it has spawned-is far from over.