NAIROBI, 15 March 2012 (IRIN) - Several thousand people have been displaced by clashes between Al-Shabab insurgents and Somali troops assisted by Ethiopian and Kenyan soldiers in Somalia's southwestern Gedo region, locals told IRIN.
"In the last couple of weeks, we have had some 5,000 people displaced by the conflict; we already had hundreds of families who were displaced," Mohamed Abdi Kaliil, governor of Gedo, told IRIN from Garbaharey, the regional capital. "We are trying to find some help for the displaced in our area but so far nothing."
Families have been "forced to move from one town to another and from one village to another", because of Al-Shabab activity, he told IRIN. "Their main aim is to hide from the violence; the people desperately need help with shelter, health, water and food."
The fighting has cut off the region from trade with the capital, Mogadishu, and the town of Baidoa, and public services have not fared any better. According to Kaliil, more than 10 health centres across Gedo region have closed due to the conflict.
Adan Abdi Hashi, administrator of the main hospital in Garbaharey, said its laboratory was burned down a week ago. "We had an attack by Al-Shabab and our facility was hit by an exchange of gun-fire and it caught fire," he said.
The hospital serves four districts in Gedo. "We have no way of testing any patient for anything," Hashi said. "We currently have dozens of patients with TB [tuberculosis} who need to be tested every two months to see how they are responding to the treatment but we cannot even do that."
Drugs too were in short supply, he added.
Apart from hospitals, the fighting has also affected schools. "In the parts still controlled by Al-Shabab, they closed down schools and are forcing children to take up guns," the governor told IRIN.
Some schools in areas under the control of the pro-government forces have also closed for various reasons. In the only secondary school in Garbaharey town, many students are absent because they have already left the area, according to the principal, Ali Mohamed Isse.
"The trend is that people are still wary of the situation, so they left for safer areas and are not sending their children to school; I cannot really blame them," Isse said.
A local journalist, who requested anonymity, said Al-Shabab - which has lost Garbaharey and other parts of Gedo to the combined forces of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), Ethiopian and Kenyan troops - "is close by and carries out attacks at will.
"This has created a great deal of apprehension and uncertainty as to what will happen next," the journalist said, adding that Kenyan air raids in parts of southern Somalia, including Gedo, were causing fear among the population.
"This has forced many people to flee any area they think is close to Al-Shabab," the journalist said, adding that this had contributed to the displacement in the region. "It is a confused and continuous movement of people."
According to the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, Gedo region is home to an estimated 77,000 displaced people. But for almost a year, Kaliil said, the area has been inaccessible to aid agencies due to the presence of Al-Shabab.