Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Somalia festers in chaos one year after Ethiopian incursion - Feature

Mogadishu - One day after Saedo Soleyman's husband was shot dead by Ethiopian troops in the violent Somali capital Mogadishu, her seven-year-old daughter Sahro was killed by a mortar shell that landed in front of the family's home. And as if things couldn't get any worse, Soleyman now lives in a makeshift hut made of plastic sheets and sticks some 30 kilometres outside Mogadishu and depends on handouts from aid agencies to survive a worsening humanitarian crisis.

Soleyman's story is all too common on the outskirts of Mogadishu these days.

After nearly a year since Ethiopian-backed transitional government troops staked their claim over Mogadishu in January, the situation has deteriorated to such an extent that the United Nations is calling Somalia Africa's worst humanitarian crisis.

"Our life is on the verge of death," said Soleyman, sprawled out in the shade of a tree - the place she now calls home.

Somalia was plunged into anarchy in 1991 after warlords toppled dictator Mohammed Siad Barre, sparking a succession of failed governments.

The current transitional government - the 14th attempt at cementing effective rule in the volatile country - has been unable to quell a persistent insurgency that a local human rights group says has killed up to 6,000 people.

The insurgency has turned most Mogadishu neighbourhoods into ghost towns. Some 80 per cent of schools are closed. Families spend their days hiding in bullet-scarred apartment buildings to stay out of harm's way.

Some 600,000 people have poured out of Mogadishu since January, adding to the 400,000 Somalis displaced before the start of the newly-ignited conflict.

Like Soleyman, they mostly inhabit a stretch of road between Mogadishu and Afgooye 30 kilometres away, fleeing the vicious conflict on foot, by wheelbarrow, donkey cart and any other means to get as far from the violence as possible.

The journey out is nothing if not a struggle. Pro-government militiamen set up roadblocks, demanding upwards of 500 dollars to cross. The UN children's agency UNICEF has said women are dragged out of vehicles and raped in broad daylight even as they attempt to vacate the carnage in the capital.

"Sexual violence and rape is part of the game," said Christian Balslev-Olesen, the children's fund representative for Somalia, adding that the trend was new to the Somali conflict.

Balslev-Olesen said all parties are involved in the crime, including Ethiopian troops who are so bogged down in the constant fighting they are unable to withdraw.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said he is awaiting a more robust deployment of African Union troops to the capital, who, now numbering 1,600, are incapable of maintaining peace.

The United Nations, which said earlier this year a UN force in Somalia was unlikely, appealed for 400 million dollars in aid for Somalia for 2008, up nearly a third from last year's request.
But delivering aid to displaced Somalis continued to be hampered this year.

Increasing piracy off Somalia's lawless shores has seen more than 20 ships attacked and 13 hijacked, eliciting an escort of UN ships by French and US navies.

Local aid agencies say it's not only the violence that impedes aid delivery, but government restrictions. The head of the World Food Programme's Somalia office was detained at gunpoint by the national security service earlier this year for reasons still largely unknown.

"We meet obstacles from government soldiers especially those at checkpoints who impose a sum of money on us, which in turn delays the aid assistance," said Ahmed Ali Ganey, a humanitarian worker with the Somali Relief Council.

But the government has throughout the year denied obstructing aid efforts.

Moreover, it has insisted it is winning the war against insurgents in bullet-scarred Mogadishu.
"There is no place the insurgents rule. It is clear that the government manages all of Mogadishu," said Mohamed Omar Dalha, the transitional government's deputy parliamentary speaker.

Residents assess the government's performance otherwise.

"The security situation is worse than before," said Abdi-Muhsin Mohamed Yusuf, a student at Mogadishu University, whose studies have been interrupted on many occasions because of mortar shells, gunfire or bombs.

"Every aspect of life is getting worse every day."


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