GALKAYO, SOMALIA Deka Mohamed Idou sat under a tree, exhausted after a grueling six-day journey. She touched her belly, yearning for her unborn child to kick.
This is why she took the long, bumpy road out of Mogadishu: War. A missing husband and three missing children. A shattered house. This is why she's here in this wind-swept no man's land between Somalia and Djibouti: Peace. Work. An education for her two other children. She can't see what awaits them. Perhaps sanctuary. Perhaps more suffering. But she's certain of one thing.
"I will deliver my baby in a place without gunfire," she said.
For Somalis, the road out of Mogadishu is a last resort. Those traveling on it have fled homes abruptly with terrified children, and crossed a wilderness of thieves, armed Islamists and marauding tribesmen. Many have been robbed, beaten, raped, even killed.
The situation in Mogadishu has become so bad that nearly 300,000 Somalis have made their way out this year, swelling the ranks of what is, after Iraq and Afghanistan, the third-largest refugee population from any country in the world. Most are women and children. The men who have survived have stayed behind to protect their homes, or they went ahead. Some have vanished in the chaos. Others are fighting.
The road, and the places along it, is the most visible evidence of a population still disintegrating, amid hopelessness and death, two decades after the collapse of Siad Barre's government plunged Somalia into an endless civil war.
Today, al-Shabab, a militia linked to al-Qaeda, controls large chunks of the Muslim country and seeks to overthrow the fragile U.S.-backed government. The militia's Taliban-like decrees and recruitment of children provide more reasons for Somalis to flee.
They travel north, often to places they have only imagined, arriving hungry and desperate. They join the hundreds of thousands who have fled since 1991, leaving behind a city that once had 2.5 million people.
Many remain too poor to flee. The ones with some means head for camps in Somali towns like Galkayo, Bossaso and Hargeisa, searching for peace and support. The ones with a few dollars more head for foreign lands - Djibouti, Yemen, Saudi Arabia - searching for a new life.
Those who succeed enter a world where they can be deported at any moment, where they are increasingly viewed as a security threat. Those who fail, and most do, are trapped in a humanitarian limbo, resigned to hardship, dependency and a broken life or they die.
They travel from one hell to another hell," said Ahmed Abdullahi, a U.N. refugee protection officer in Galkayo, 470 miles northwest of Mogadishu and often the first stop on the journey toward Djibouti and Yemen. These are the stories of women who have taken this road, from the places they end up.