'Slow genocide' in Somalia's capital Mogadishu

People watching a tank in a Mogadishu street
Image caption The African Union force has deployed tanks in the streets to try to halt the insurgents' advance

The sound of gunfire echoes through almost every street in Mogadishu.

Residential areas frequently come under heavy, indiscriminate shelling, corpses litter the alleyways, and neither side seems to be gaining the upper hand.

For the past two weeks, Somalia's once-beautiful capital has been the scene of fierce fighting between African Union-backed government forces and Islamist militants.

"This city is proving to be more dangerous than at any other time I can remember," says resident Jamilo Cilmi. "I have decided to leave for the safety of my children."

The new wave of violence flared after dozens of people, including four MPs, were killed in a suicide attack on a hotel. The main Islamist militant group, al-Shabab, which controls much of southern and central Somalia, said it had carried out the attack.

The insurgents stepped up their offensive as they attempted to gain control of the presidential palace and a strategically important road linking the hilltop compound in the city centre to the airport to the west.

The African Union force in Somalia (Amisom), which is backing the government forces, has deployed several tanks on the streets in a bid to halt the advance, but the battle is ongoing and the death toll is mounting.

More than 230 people have so far been killed in the clashes, while hospitals in the city have been overwhelmed by the hundreds of injured.

Omar Abdullahi says rotting bodies are piling up in the southern Hodan district, because the fighting has been too intense to collect them.

"Everywhere has turned into a cemetery," he adds.

'Nowhere is safe'

Two thirds of the city's estimated 1.5 million residents have already fled, mostly to makeshift camps on the outskirts.

But this leaves some 500,000 people still braving the fighting. Some are too emotionally attached to their homes, while others are physically unable to move or simply do not have the money to pay for the transport.

After almost two decades of conflict, many Mogadishu residents know little else - for them, fighting is normal.

"I fled from Mogadishu two times before. My children were almost dying without water and food plus the wind, rain, sun and dust since we did not have a shelter. I finally came back to my house to await my destiny," says Mohamud Ali, a father of seven, who lives in Howlwadag district south of the city.

Many schools are still open although attendance is poor and those in rebel-held districts have struggled because of the shelling.

Those who have chosen to stay find they can no longer cross safely between the parts of the city controlled by the government and those run by al-Shabab.

Aside from the fighting on the streets, women are being forced to cover up as they enter al-Shabab areas and are sometimes questioned at militant checkpoints when they travel without their husbands or male relatives.

Image caption The AU force and the insurgents are accused of ignoring the plight of civilians

"Nowhere is safe in the capital today. It has turned into a ghost town. We live with constant worry in a hopeless situation," says Dahabo Osman, a mother of six.

"Both the government backed by the Amisom and the insurgents do not care about civilians being caught in the crossfire."

People normally come out from hiding and can buy basic foods like bread and milk during brief lulls in the fighting.

But the closure of the main road linking government-controlled areas to the city's biggest market, in rebel territory, has made even this increasingly difficult,

"We used to get to the Bakara market within 20 minutes, but now we have to use another road and the journey takes an hour and a half," says businessman Abdi Haji. "The road has changed and the risk has increased."

Holiday shopping

The ordeal does not end there, though, as those people who reach the market have to deal with shortages of basic foodstuffs, the prices of which have almost doubled in the past fortnight, and the risk of frequent shelling.

"Our shops have been closed and most of the traders have moved their stalls out of the market because of the endless shelling," businessman Ismail Dahir says.

"The festival of Eid al-Fitr is approaching so it is a busy shopping period. However, business is not good."

Ali Mohamed Siyad, the chairman of the market traders' association, says the fighting can start at any moment with no warning.

"Sometimes we spend whole day under concrete buildings for cover. It recently happened when the market was full of people buying food to break the daily fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan."

Image caption A million people have now left Mogadishu

The food shortages at Bakara have also been made worse by the inability of the traders to reach their suppliers at Mogadishu's seaport - in government-controlled territory - and an order by the city's mayor to cease trading at the market.

"Both sides know that the use of force is not the solution, but all they are intent on doing is continuing killing civilians and forcing the remaining residents to flee," says Mohamud Haji Nur, a local elder.

Abdul-Kadir, who has lost his left leg in the conflict, agrees.

"When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers most. I wonder who these warring groups want to rule if we are all dead. They will only rule a country with animals and graves," he warns.

Despite the civilians' suffering, neither side seems to be winning.

"They are occupying the same areas they were in months ago," says Ali Sheikh Yasin, a human right activist. "The only gains they are making are massacring innocent civilians and destroying what is left of this dilapidated capital."

"What is going on here is like a slow genocide," he warns.

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