(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Mass exodus as militia takes control of southern town

[Somalia] Watering animals in Afmadow well [Date picture taken: 03/26/2006]
Lucy Hannan

Somalia's Islamist Al-Shabab militia group has taken control of the southern town of Afmadow, 620km south of the capital Mogadishu, causing hundreds of families to flee in fear of violence.

The town fell on 21 November after another Islamist group, Hisbul-Islam, left a day earlier, allowing Al-Shabab to move in without much resistance.

"Sporadic gunfire can be heard today but nothing serious,” a resident told IRIN on 24 November. “They [Al-Shabab] are in control.”

Most of the fighting took place on the outskirts of the town and has reportedly claimed 15 lives.

Al-Shabab now controls most of southern Somalia.

Tension had been building between Al-Shabab and Hisbul-Islam in Afmadow since the former allies fell out in October in the coastal city of Kismayo, leading to fighting and Al-Shabab taking Kismayo last month. The two have been fighting for control of the Juba Valley.

The Afmadow resident, who requested anonymity, said many families fled just before the group took control and many more were trying to do the same.

“Many of the most senior elders and business people have fled," the resident said. "They [Al-Shabab] met what is left of the elders and business community and told them they should tell the people not to be afraid and resume their activities.”

Aid agencies have also reportedly left the town. On 21 November, the UN World Food programme (WFP) temporarily relocated five national staff based in Afmadow due to security concerns, said Peter Smerdon, WFP spokesman.

Fear of unknown

Mohamed Dahir, a journalist based in the town of Dobley, near the Kenyan border, told IRIN the influx of people from Afmadow and surrounding areas had been increasing.

“Our estimate is that around 400 families [2,400 people] have arrived and many more are coming,” Dahir said.

He said many people were also arriving from villages located between Afmadow and Dobley. “This influx is driven by fear of the unknown,” he added.

Dahir said many elders and business people from Afmadow were in Dobley, “including some very senior individuals”.

So far, the displaced are staying with relatives and friends, “but if the influx continues the town won’t be able to cope with them”, he said.

An elder, who requested anonymity, said he had left Afmadow “because these people [Al-Shabab] have no respect for tradition or elders. People don’t know what to expect from them, so they fear the worst.”

Conflict and drought have led to the worst humanitarian crisis the country has faced in nearly two decades. An estimated 3.6 million - almost half the total population - need aid, according to the UN.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that the numbers displaced in fighting between government forces and the two Islamist insurgent groups has reached more than 1.5 million.


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