The U.N. refugee agency reports for the first time in two years, displaced Somalis are beginning to return to their devastated neighborhoods in the capital Mogadishu. The UNHCR says the returns in the last two weeks follow the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops from Mogadishu.

In the past few years, Somalia's capital, Mogadishu has been the scene of some of the worst fighting in the country. Tens of thousands of terrified civilians have fled their homes. They prefer to live in squalid makeshift camps than to chance the violence and insecurity of a capital at war.  

But, now, the U.N. refugee agency says there are signs that the situation may be changing. It says more than 16,000 internally displaced people who had fled to various parts of Somalia have returned to three districts in the capital.

UNHCR spokesman, Ron Redmond, tells VOA the three western districts were scenes of some of the worst violence and human rights abuses witnessed in Mogadishu some months ago.

"The returnees are families who say they intend to stay for good in the city," he said. "What we have seen in the past is maybe the heads of households, men going back and checking out their houses and their property, but not bringing their families back. Now the whole family is going back."  

"So, that is a good sign. The bad news is that despite these returns, the security situation in Mogadishu remains extremely volatile. And, only this week, some 10,000 civilians fled from two districts in northeast Mogadishu to escape advancing Islamic militia who wanted to seize control of the neighborhood," he continued.

Redmond says most of these 10,000 displaced people have moved to other neighborhoods within Mogadishu or to the outskirts of the city. So, he says, a lot of instability remains, with some people returning to Mogadishu and others fleeing the city.

For now, he says most of the city's residents who fled Mogadishu are still reluctant or fearful to return to their homes. The UNHCR reports an estimated 300,000 internally displaced people live in makeshift shelters in the Afgooye area, some 30 kilometers west of Mogadishu.

Redmond says conditions there are very hard. Nevertheless, he says the IDPs are afraid conditions in Mogadishu will be even worse. He says they are deterred from returning by lack of water, sanitation and health services and the threat of renewed fighting in the capital.

About one million Somalis have fled Mogadishu since February 2007, when fighting erupted between the Ethiopian-backed Transitional Federal Government soldiers and rebels. The UNHCR says 1.3 million Somalis are displaced within their own country.