NAIROBI, (Reuters) – About a quarter of nearly 400,000 refugees who deserted Mogadishu during fighting earlier this year have returned to the Somali capital, the United Nations refugee agency said on Friday.
But life in the war-scarred city was tough, with shortages of electricity and water, uncollected garbage clogging the streets, and many businesses and schools shut, UNHCR said. “Living conditions in Mogadishu remain difficult for returnees as well as for those who stayed in the capital throughout the conflict,” it said in a statement.
Two rounds of vicious fighting between allied Ethiopian-Somali troops and Islamist-led insurgents sent residents fleeing the coastal city in droves earlier this year and killed at least 1,300 people, mainly civilians.
The United Nations said 391,000 Somalis had abandoned the city since February, but 90,000 had returned in recent weeks during a relative lull in violence. “Our office in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, and a network of partners have continued to monitor population movements inside Somalia and now estimate that up to 90,000 Somalis may have returned to Mogadishu,” it said in a statement.
Full-scale conflict has given way in recent weeks to sporadic guerrilla-style attacks on Ethiopian military and Somali government targets. Casualties have been much lower.
Most returnees had come from the Shabelle and Bay regions of south and central Somalia, where refugees have been living in dire conditions, many under trees or beside the road, UNHCR said.
The Somali government and its ally Ethiopia — who jointly drove Islamists out of Mogadishu at the New Year after a brief, six-month rule — angrily contest the U.N. figures, saying the world body has exaggerated the exodus.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told Reuters recently he estimated some 80,000 civilians had fled the fighting, while the Somali government put the figure lower at 30,000. “One person high up the U.N. ladder even suggested the number of displaced people in Mogadishu was higher than that of Darfur,” Meles said, referring to a conflict in west Sudan. “I do not think he knows what he is talking about.”
UNHCR said that despite the gradual return of refugees to Mogadishu, many people were nervous or unable to go back, and the Horn of Africa nation’s overall numbers of displaced people had been swelled by the overflowing of the Shabelle river. “Even as small numbers of people trickle back to Mogadishu, hundreds of thousands of others remain in various regions of Somalia such as Bay, Galgaduud, Mudug and Hiran,” UNHCR said. “There are reports of further displacement of people living along the Shabelle river which has overflowed destroying shelters and crops.”