Somalia's interim government has declared victory over insurgents in the capital, Mogadishu, and is urging more than 350,000 people who had fled the fighting to return to the city. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu visited some of the displaced camps outside of Mogadishu and reports that the humanitarian crisis is worsening by the day.
By midday Tuesday, the narrow tarmac road that links Mogadishu to the town of Afgoye had turned into a parking lot.
The traffic jam extended for kilometers as minivans and buses, teetering with passengers, tried to overtake a procession of slow-moving donkey carts and people pushing wheelbarrows, piled high with household furniture and mattresses.
Most of the traffic was going north toward Mogadishu, which saw more than a third of its one million residents flee when the insurgency began in February.
Fatuma Ali Ahmed and her five children were among the first to arrive back in her neighborhood in southern Mogadishu, where the rubble of destroyed homes and businesses litter the streets.
Ahmed fled in terror more than a month ago when her neighbors were killed by a rocket that crashed into their house.
Ahmed says she had been living since mid-March in a make-shift camp just outside Mogadishu. She says even though she is still worried that fighting in the city could resume at any time, she could not go on living in the camp, where conditions were beyond terrible.
The camps are now too numerous to count and extend in every direction from the capital. The bleak landscape of tens of thousands of newly built stick huts is a grim reminder of U.N. warnings that Somalia faces an unprecedented humanitarian disaster.
The start of the rainy season here is already threatening to make conditions even worse for people living out in the open.
In a hospital 15 kilometers south of the capital, Dr. Hawa Abdi, 60, and her staff of 60 doctors, nurses, and volunteers struggle to treat and house some 20,000 displaced adults and children.
Many are suffering from dysentery, most probably caused by lack of clean water at the camps. Some are lying on mattresses in the middle of the courtyard because there is no room to treat them inside.
The hospital, which first opened in the early 1980s, normally functions as a maternity clinic and has seen its share of suffering during the past decade and a half of civil war.
But since February, Dr. Abdi says the hospital has been overwhelmed by the number of people needing medical help and food assistance. She says the assistance she is receiving from the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations is not enough to keep people from dying.
"This is the first time I am worried. I asked the U.N. [woman] to bring food and she answered, 'We cannot come to you to help you because there is no security.' So, we are going to die if they do not come to us. I was proud to be Somali and to stay in my country. But now, the situation is getting worse and worse and worse. No hope, totally," she said.
A young man, who identifies himself only as Hassan, is among many people here whom Dr. Abdi may have to look after for a while longer.
Hassan, who used to work as a construction worker in Mogadishu, says his family has to beg for food in the camp where he is living. But he says it is still better to suffer there than to be killed by bullets, bombs, and tanks in the capital.
Hassan says he and his family will not go back to Mogadishu because even though the guns have fallen silent, he is not convinced that the government has full control of the city.
Other displaced people VOA interviewed say their homes have been destroyed in the fighting and they have nowhere to go.
Even those who managed to return to their homes, like Fatuma Ali Ahmed, face hardships and are demanding help from the government.
Ahmed says the man who owned the water well in her neighborhood has fled and no one knows how to turn the water back on. She asks: How can we live here without water?
The fighting pitted Somali government troops and their Ethiopian allies on one side and a mixed group of radical Islamists and anti-government clansmen on the other.
More than 1,500 people have been killed, most of them in the past month alone. Both sides of the conflict have been criticized for indiscriminately firing on civilian areas.