Fifteen months after Ethiopia led a military intervention to oust Somalia's Islamist movement from power, the poverty-stricken country has been devastated by an Islamist-led insurgency, suffering from worsening insecurity, and is sliding rapidly toward what international aid agencies describe as a humanitarian catastrophe. Worst hit by the crisis is the Somali capital Mogadishu. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu reports from that city that two-thirds of its nearly two million residents are in critical need of help.
At first glance, a visitor arriving at the airport in Mogadishu may get the impression that life in the capital is not as dire as the latest humanitarian reports suggest.
The four kilometer-long road from the airport to the first main junction is clogged with people, cars, and trucks. Roadside vendors display stacks of fresh fruit and vegetables in front of well-stocked stores.
Near the airport, the city's main seaport also hums with activity. On this day, dock workers on one side of the port are busy unloading consumer items from a ship that has arrived from Dubai. On the other side of the sprawling facility, sacks of food, donated by the United States and shipped by the U.N.'s World Food Program, are being piled onto waiting trucks for delivery to internally displaced people in camps outside Mogadishu.
Port officials say more than 30 commercial ships and two relief vessels visit Mogadishu every month, providing the capital with essential food and goods.
The thriving commercial activity in this part of city is made possible largely by the presence of a small contingent of African Union peacekeepers, mostly Ugandan soldiers, who, for the past year, have worked hard to establish and hold a secure zone in the war-torn capital Mogadishu.
But travel further into the heart of the city and it becomes clear that some two-thirds of Mogadishu has turned into an urban battlefield, where Islamist guerrilla fighters are steadily gaining ground against Ethiopian troops backing Somalia's unpopular secular interim government and its many poorly-paid and poorly-disciplined soldiers and police.
Residents complain bitterly that policemen use illegal checkpoints around the city to demand money from motorists and pedestrians. They say government soldiers behave even worse, robbing and raping civilians and looting houses and businesses with no regard for the lives they destroy.
Fatima Mohamed Yusuf and her six children fled their home in north Mogadishu several months ago after government soldiers, accompanied by Ethiopian troops, stole everything she had during a house-to-house search for insurgents.
Yusuf says the soldiers are still looting everywhere in the city, making life unbearable for everyone.
She and her six children are now living with 250,000 other Mogadishu residents in squalid internally-displaced camps that are mushrooming along a 20-kilometer stretch of highway that connects the capital to the town of Afgooye.
Some people have been living here since 1991, when Somalia's last functioning government collapsed amid vicious factional fighting. But most people have arrived in the past 12 months, putting an enormous strain on local humanitarian workers and doctors like Hawa Abdi.
When VOA last visited Dr. Abdi eight months ago, she was struggling to provide healthcare and food to some 6,000 displaced people at her camp in Afgooye. This time, there are nearly 55,000 in her camp alone.
Dr. Abdi says increased violence and insecurity in Mogadishu and elsewhere has been the main cause of the sharp increase in the number of displaced. But she says rising food prices and hyper-inflation caused by uncontrolled printing of money have also prompted thousands of people to set up temporary shelters near food distribution centers.
"Now they are coming searching for free food. And they are making many, many, many, many camps to get food. I know WFP and U.N. organizations are doing their best feeding the displaced. This feeding is okay. You save lives, but not the future of these people, " she said.
Dr. Abdi's daughter, Deqo Mohamed, says what she, her mother, and many other Somalis want most from the international community is not just help in finding a solution to the humanitarian crisis, but finding a solution to what has caused Somalia to remain mired in war and poverty for more than 17 years.
"On the one hand, it is our fault. We made that situation. But we need development. We have become professional beggars and it is very sad. We need somebody to help the country not be a [country of] professional beggars," she said.
For now, Mohamed says Somalis can only hope and wait.