Somalia war-refugee crisis surpasses Darfur in its horror

They arrive in trucks and cars, by donkey and on foot. Some children have even been carried in wheelbarrows. There is little in the way of food, just a handful of latrines and hardly any shelter – but still they come.

In three short weeks this 10-mile stretch of road – a pot-holed, cactus-lined, dirt track that leads west out of Mogadishu – has become home to the world's largest concentration of displaced people. Almost 200,000 people who have fled the violence in Mogadishu now live in 70 makeshift camps that have sprung up along the side of the road, many of them little more than shelters fashioned from twigs, rusting corrugated iron and plastic.

There are one million displaced people in the country, according to the UNHCR; 60 per cent of Mogadishu's population, 600,000 people, are believed to have fled.

United Nations officials now consider Somalia to be the worst humanitarian crisis in Africa, surpassing even Darfur in its horror and hopelessness. The rate of severely malnourished children is higher, the daily fighting is fiercer, and the amount of interest from the rest of the world is incomparably lower. Eric Laroche, the UN's aid co-ordinator for Somalia, said: "Since it is in Somalia no one cares. Many of these kids are going to die."

A country of 10 million, perched on Africa's easternmost tip, Somalia has in the past 12 months been battered by drought, floods, even a plague of locusts. But its role in the United States' "war on terror" has caused it the most pain.

Ethiopia invaded its neighbour on Christmas Day last year, aiming to drive out the Union of Islamic Courts, a coalition of Islamist groups which had taken control of large swaths of the south and centre.

The Courts' fighters were easily defeated by one of Africa's strongest armies. But within weeks, its hardline military wing, known as Al Shabaab, had re-emerged, launching a deadly Iraq-style insurgency. But the Ethiopians and Somali government troops have also attacked residential districts where they believe the insurgents are – 200,000 people have left in just three weeks.

The civil war has lasted 17 years. But this time, say those in Afgoye's wretched camps, is different.

Halima Ibrahim watched her husband die four days ago after their home was hit by a shell. In the chaos she gathered four of her eight children. "I could not find the others... They are killing old women, they are killing children," she spat. "Those Ethiopians deserve to die." Hatred towards the Ethiopians is matched only by a longing for the return of the Islamic Courts, who ruled Mogadishu from June to December. "We had peace then," said Ifrah Umaar, 30. "For six months we were happy."

Rampant insecurity has made Somalia a difficult place to deliver aid. Militias charge up to $400 per truck at roadblocks and the government has even accused aid workers of "feeding terrorists" by providing support to those who have fled.

"Someone who is severely malnourished is not a terrorist," replied Mr Laroche.

Those lining the road to Afgoye can only sit and wait.

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