Somalis flee chaotic capital to a harder life

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MOGADISHU, Nov 4 (Reuters) Abdio Qasim Elmi was desperate to hold onto the security of shelter, food and water in her Mogadishu home despite near daily gun battles between Ethiopian government troops and rebel insurgents.

But when a mortar shell killed three people in a neighbouring house in the Somali capital, the 50-year-old abandoned hope. She packed a few belongings and fled with her six children.

Now they are in a camp for displaced people in Elasha, 20 km south of the capital, along with another 482 families.

''We have no water, no food and no plastic to cover our shelter,'' Elmi told Reuters. ''My older daughter is gravely sick and I cannot afford to buy her medicine. We are living a miserable life here.'' About 88,000 Somalis have fled the coastal city during heavy fighting in Mogadishu since the last weekend, adding to hundreds of thousands who ran away earlier this year, according to the United Nations' refugee agency.

Many of them have erected makeshift shelters made of tattered sheets and sticks by the road.

''My family and I are exposed to the rain and cold at nights because we have not found any plastic to cover our shelter,'' said 30-year-old Ayan Osman Mohamed, with a three-month old baby strapped to her back.

''We came here because the government troops asked us to leave during a heavy fight between them and the insurgents.'' The refugees say their biggest problem is water.

Young women sit by hundreds of jerry cans lined up outside the camp daily, waiting for local charities to deliver water in tankers.

On many days, they head back to their shacks without a drop despite a whole day of waiting.

CATASTROPHIC SITUATION Since early 2007, the Somalia government and its Ethiopian allies have been the target of almost daily attacks by mainly Islamists rebels who say the government is illegitimate and propped up by foreign ''invaders''.

Aid agencies say incessant violence has led to an unfolding humanitarian catastrophe. Other humanitarian hotspots such as Sudan's Darfur have also taken the spotlight away from Somalia.

The insecurity has forced most aid agencies to leave the country, leaving only the United Nations and a few other groups to run limited operations staffed almost entirely by Somalis.

''Only WFP has provided some food and people here desperately need clean drinking water. Children have began to fall sick and their families have no money,'' said Hassan Ali Aden, a refugee father of eight.

But even World Food Programme (WFP) operations have not been spared. The UN agency suspended food deliveries to the city when intelligence officers stormed its Mogadishu compound and detained a top official without charge for nearly a week.

It is now in negotiations with the government to resume the distribution.

Piracy on Somali waters compounds the problem and bringing food from neighbouring Kenya is almost impossible because of insecure roads.

But for many in the camps, going back to Mogadishu is not an option.

''Life here is hard, of course. In Mogadishu, I used a wheelbarrow to cart things for people and earned a little,'' said Ibrahim Abdi Ibrahim, living in another refugee camp dubbed Ex-Mogadishu Stadium camp.

''My children and I were happy, but we cannot go back as long the meaningless killing is underway.'' REUTERS SYU BD0908

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