Somalia

Small Somali town struggling to cope with tens of thousands of people displaced by fighting in nearby Mogadishu

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AFGOOYE, Somalia, April 25 (UNHCR) - UNHCR and its local partners in the town of Afgooye have distributed urgent relief supplies to more than 35,000 Somalis fleeing fighting in nearby Mogadishu, and more aid is on the way. But the town, 30 kms west of the strife-torn capital, has been nearly overwhelmed by a constant stream of desperate people in search of help and safety.

Estimates compiled by UNHCR from a network of humanitarian agencies now place the total number of people who have fled Mogadishu since February at nearly 340,000. More than 41,000 of them have converged on Afgooye.

"Civilians are still fleeing Mogadishu at a very high rate," a UNHCR staff member in Afgooye said. "At least half of the capital is deserted, slowly turning it into a ghost city. I have walked in some neighborhoods where you meet no one except for a few individuals that some families have left behind to guard their houses."

The situation in Afgooye, however, has grown increasingly chaotic, he said.

"People living in Afgooye are scared because the fighting might spread along the road from Mogadishu," he said. "They also fear the increasing theft and burglary and the gangs that roam the town, which used to be safe. Now your mobile phone might be stolen at gunpoint, sometimes even in daylight, and some houses are broken into during the night."

Many Afgooye residents have already taken in friends and relatives from the capital and the town has run out of shelter space. Many families are living under UNHCR plastic sheeting, giving them some protection from the weather. Prices in local shops have risen dramatically because of the huge demand. Some local landowners are even charging rent to people seeking shelter under their trees.

"People in Afgooye are extremely poor, most of them live on less than a dollar a day, and now they can no longer afford the prices which rise day after day," the UNHCR staff member said. "Some shopowners and landowners make a lot of money by demanding unaffordable prices. Along the road between Mogadishu and Afgooye, those who own land compel displaced people to pay rent in exchange for sitting under trees."

With so many people fleeing towards Afgooye, tensions are rising all along the road to Mogadishu. The road has been closed several times over the past week due to explosions and military activity. A bridge on the edge of Afgooye on the road to Baidoa, 200 kms away, has been closed since Tuesday, blocking some of the trucks carrying UNHCR relief supplies.

Still, the refugee agency and its partners have completed a first round of distributions to more than 35,000 people in Afgooye. A second round of distributions is planned this week for another 13,500 people. Tonnes of plastic sheeting, mattresses, jerry cans, kitchen utensils and other supplies have been airlifted from UNHCR's emergency stockpiles in Dubai to Baidoa, and then trucked down to Afgooye. But the aid lifeline is tenuous because of continuing road closures and military activity.

Before the latest fighting, Mogadishu was home to 250,000 displaced people from earlier conflicts. Many of them have now had to flee again and are among the most vulnerable people in Afgooye. Many are destitute.

About 2,400 members of the minority Eyle clan, a group of former hunters and nut gatherers who are marginalized and often discriminated against, are now stuck on the outskirts of Mogadishu and in a desperate situation, the UNHCR staff member said.

"They were living close to the stadium, an area which has been absolutely leveled by the fighting," he said. "Now they would like to go back to their native area close to Baidoa, but they can't afford the rising price of transportation and it is too far to walk."

Included among the 340,000 who have fled Mogadishu are 128,000 who went to the neighboring provinces of the Shabelles (68,000 in Lower Shabelle/Shabelle Hoose and 60,000 in Middle Shabelle/Shabelle Dhexe). Nearly 109,000 have gone to Galgaduud area, 38,000 to Mudug, 26,000 to Bay and 24,000 to Hiran.