The Somali port city of Kismayo is the last major stronghold of the al-Shabab militant group. United Nations, government and Kenyan forces are expected to launch an assault on the city soon. Despite that, few civilians have fled Kismayo and the surrounding areas.
The U-N refugee agency says only about 4,000 people have fled Kismayo and surrounding towns and villages over the past three and a half months.
Bruno Geddo, UNHCR’s representative for Somalia, said there are several reasons for the low number.
“The first one is customary in similar situations. We have seen it before. Shabab does not allow the civilians to leave. So the civilians have to leave with public transport in very small groups to avoid drawing attention. They cannot leave in big numbers and in open daylight,” he said.
Geddo said although there are two camps for displaced persons within Kismayo, many of the inhabitants fled a long time ago. He said business owners and traders in Kismayo take a pragmatic view of the situation in their decision to remain.
“They believe that after putting up an initial fight to save face, Shabab will give up and leave to avoid most of them being killed since there is an overwhelming superiority between the AMISOM and Kenyan forces and the local Shabab forces,” he said.
The UNHCR official also said many Kismayo residents may leave the city if fighting breaks out, but only travel short distances to find safety.
“So there is a cyclical movement in and out of the city. Therefore these people don’t go very far to other villages. They go out, sit out and come back,” he said.
The UNHCR has a contingency plan to help Kismayo civilians. In a worst case scenario, the agency says as many as 50,000 people may need assistance. Emergency supplies are being stockpiled in strategic locations. The UNHCR calls on both sides to ensure the safety of civilians.