Somali civilians flee fighting, crowd squalid camps

A young girl feeds her baby brother at a refugee camp  on the outskirts of Mogadishu, Somalia.
Some of the worst fighting to hit Somalia’s capital city in recent months uprooted nearly 34,000 people in less than a week, according to a United Nations report released Monday.

Relief workers said the fighting between the Somali government and rebels over Islamic law has left Somali civilians with the choice of facing bloody battles or fleeing to squalid camps. The displaced people have found shelter in already overcrowded camps in and around Mogadishu, while others have fled into neighboring Kenya, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). OCHA said that an estimated 34,000 people were displaced by the fighting between insurgents and Somalia’s government from May 8-14. Although Somalia’s border with Kenya is officially closed, an estimated 5,000 displaced Somalis arrive every month in the U.N. refugee camps in the Kenyan border town of Dadaab, according to Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF. “The situation is simply scandalous,” said Joke Van Peteghem, who heads the MSF mission in Kenya. “These refugees have risked everything to escape the fighting in Somalia. Now some are telling us they would rather take their chances in Mogadishu than die slowly here.” One nurse called the refugee camps in Kenya “public health time bombs.”

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“The refugees, many of whom are already suffering from serious war-related injuries or illnesses, are packed together without the bare minimum to survive,” said Donna Canali, who worked for MSF at Dagahaley Camp. “After all these people have endured, how can their most basic needs continue to be so woefully neglected” Nearly a quarter of the more than 90,000 refugees at Dagahaley suffer from acute malnutrition, according to MSF. MSF is calling on the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Kenya’s government, and international donors to help alleviate the “dire living conditions” at the camps in Kenya which house more than 270,000 Somali refugees. More than 100 people have died in the latest fighting in Somalia, and hundreds more have been wounded in the bloody insurgency, government officials said last week. The violence stems from an interpretation of sharia, or Islamic law. Somalia’s new president, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, recently approved implementing sharia, but the al-Shabab rebel group wants the country to institute a stricter form. On Sunday, al-Shabab seized control of Jowhar, the president’s hometown about 55 miles (88 km) north of Mogadishu, according to a local journalist. The violence is exacerbating the already precarious humanitarian situation in Somalia, where an estimated 40 percent of the country’s population — more than 3 million people — need humanitarian support, according to the U.N. The fighting erupted days after a mortar attack on Somalia’s parliament that killed six people and wounded more than a dozen others on April 25. The fatalities included a soldier and three children who were killed when the rounds struck a nearby school, a police spokesman said. Members of parliament were meeting when the attack occurred, but none of them was injured, an official said.