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Desperate Somalis driven by famine into war-torn capital

Mogadishu is on the front line of a brutal civil war, but 1,500 people a day are flocking there in hope of food

From a distance, the refugee camp at Badbaado, a southern Mogadishu suburb known in better times for its football club, bears an uncanny resemblance to Glastonbury.

Thousands of tents, crazily coloured and haphazardly jammed together, stretch as far as the eye can see. The narrow paths in between are packed with brightly dressed people passing to and fro. But up close it becomes apparent that the tents are makeshift affairs; and there is no light in the eyes of the people living in them. The lucky ones have been given plastic orange sheeting to drape over fragile frames of thorn scrub; many newer arrivals have had to make do with scraps of cloth scavenged from rubbish heaps. None of the tents offers adequate protection from the stupefying heat.

This is the reality behind the UN's announcement this week that the drought crisis in two provinces of southern Somalia is now, officially, a famine, meaning that more than 30 per cent of children are suffering acute malnutrition and that, each day, four out of every 10,000 of them are dying from it.

The massive refugee camp at Dadaab, just over the border in northern Kenya, has grabbed most of the headlines so far in this crisis. It is easy for the media to reach from Nairobi, and enjoys the dubious but eye-catching title of largest refugee camp in the world. Designed to house 90,000 people, it is now home to an estimated 370,000, making it technically the third largest population centre in Kenya. But Dadaab's immense size makes it easy to forget that this is just the tip of a vast and mostly unreported iceberg: across the region, some 10.7 million people are in crisis, including an estimated 2.8 million in southern Somalia, and they are fleeing in all directions, not just southward to Dadaab.

The most startling points about Badbaado are, first, that it is less than two weeks old and, second, that it is in Mogadishu, a city still very much at war. Refugee movements have traditionally been in the other direction; the reversal alone points to the severity of this crisis. As many as 1,500 refugees are turning up here every day, a rate just as fast as at Dadaab. There are already well over 20,000 people at Badbaado, with countless others camping wherever they can among Mogadishu's apocalyptic ruins. The UN-backed Transitional Federal Government, known as the TFG, which established the camp in an attempt to bring some sort of order to the chaos, is struggling to cope.

At the camp feeding centre, which is run by the NGO Qatar Charity, all the first signs of starvation are on display: the brittle, orange hair that denotes prolonged vitamin deficiency, the distended bellies of children, the outsized heads and stick-like upper arms. A couple of tons of rice are laid out in sacks on the ground, but this is nowhere near enough for the numbers arriving at Badbaado. Women and children, many of them with empty feeding bowls clamped to their heads to ward off the blazing sun, queue by the hundred beneath the impassive gaze of machine-gun-toting TFG soldiers. Their desperation is barely suppressed. At one point, when it looks as though the aid workers are about to open for business, the crowd surges and two or three women are almost trampled when they are pushed on to the coil of razor wire at the entrance; the throng is forced back just in time by stewards armed with cruel-looking switches.

That anyone should choose to seek shelter in a war zone such as Mogadishu represents a vote of confidence of sorts for the TFG, which, with the support of some 12,000 African Union troops from Uganda and Burundi, has made good progress recently in its three-year campaign to wrest control of the capital from a virulent Islamist insurgency, the al-Qa'ida-linked organisation al-Shabaab. The L-shaped frontline that cuts across the city is relatively quiet at present, although that can change quickly. Commanders are braced for a repeat of last year's bloody Ramadan counteroffensive, the so-called "War of Liberation from the Stooges" – and Ramadan, this year, falls in August. If the TFG and its allies can maintain security in the city areas now under their control – as well as feed the tens of thousands who have sought sanctuary there – then they will have won an important propaganda victory.

The famine-affected provinces, Bakool and Lower Shabelle, are in the heartland of the insurgency, whose leadership is deeply divided over how to respond. As Islamists bent on ejecting the TFG and its infidel foreign backers, al-Shabaab has no wish to co-operate with international aid organisations – and, indeed, banned them from operating in its areas in 2009. On the other hand, it cannot afford to alienate the local population by callously letting the weak and vulnerable die – which may be why, earlier this month, it announced that the ban on aid organisations would be lifted on condition that they had "no hidden agenda". Unicef, the United Nations Children's Fund, responded by immediately airlifting five tons of emergency aid to the south-central town of Baidoa.

Last week, however, al-Shabaab's spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage appeared to uphold the 2009 ban at a news conference in rebel-held Mogadishu. "We shall ... expel any agency that causes problems for Muslim society," he said, adding that hungry Somalis should stay in their homes and wait for the rain to come rather than going to foreign-run refugee camps. Some refugees arriving in Mogadishu say they were forced to travel at night in order to avoid being turned back at checkpoints manned by al-Shabaab. Plans by Unicef and other agencies to repeat the Baidoa operation are now under review.

Al-Shabaab's bloody-mindedness represents an important opportunity for the TFG to win over Somali hearts and minds by responding robustly to the famine crisis. But are the politicians up to the challenge?

"We walked for five days to reach this place. Al-Shabaab gave us nothing. And yet there is nothing for us here," complained one old man at Badbaado, pointing his clustered fingers at his mouth. "We have to eat – but where is the food?"

If, as seems likely, the TFG cannot rise to the challenge of the famine, it will fall to the international community to feed the starving millions in those areas it is able to reach. The international agencies are still scrabbling to catch up. The UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator for Somalia, Mark Bowden, has said that an extra $300m (£188m) is needed over the next two months, and warned that, without prompt action, the famine will soon spread to all eight provinces in south Somalia.

Meanwhile, the weather continues to be cruel to the refugees in Mogadishu. On Thursday, the sandy ground at Badbaado was turned to mud by a monsoon – a salty deluge that unfortunately falls only on the coast, never on the drought-afflicted interior. That, too, is reminiscent of Glastonbury – except that the rain here releases mosquitoes, adding the threat of dengue fever to all the other woes. In Somalia, it seems, the horsemen of the apocalypse are galloping harder than ever.

Give a day’s pay for Africa

The famine in the Horn of Africa is now claiming 250 lives a day – and it will get much worse without immediate, substantial aid. The Independent on Sunday is asking its readers, their friends and families to join with its senior staff and each pledge one day’s pay to charity. To join our “Give a day’s pay for Africa” campaign, go to independent.co.uk/giveadayspay All donations are welcome – to give £5, enough to buy high-energy food supplements to save five children a day, text INDY to 70000. Spread the word on Twitter, using the hashtag #Giveadayspay