Six miles north of Galkayo, in a place called Halabokhad, 473 families are stuck in a makeshift settlement. The landscape is hot, dusty, bleak as their lives. They live in round, cramped tents made from clothing and straw. They become isolated, unable to afford transportation to town.
Local officials are in charge of the settlement, which is supported by the United Nations. But there is only one borehole for water. Food and medical care are also scarce. Bone-thin children have yellowish skin, a sign of malnutrition in a country where one of every seven children dies before age 5. Women deliver babies inside their tents, sometimes without help.
This is where Amina Aden arrived three months ago with her exhausted children and nothing else. Her neighborhood was engulfed by war. Her husband was killed in crossfire a day before they fled their home carrying only what they could. A few miles outside Mogadishu, masked men stopped their minibus filled with refugees. The youngest women were ordered out. Aden heard them scream while they were gang-raped. The men returned, and Aden braced herself. Her eight children surrounded her, crying, tugging at her clothes. The men looked at them, then grabbed another woman. "My children saved me," Aden, 35, recalled with a feeble smile.
After the rapes, the men delivered one final blow: They robbed all the passengers of their meager possessions. "They even took our sandals," Aden said.
Her children, ages 3 to 15, do not attend school. For breakfast, they drink tea. For lunch, they eat a bland porridge. There is never any dinner. "I cannot even buy milk powder for my baby," said her neighbor, Kaltoom Abdi Ali, 37. She, too, fled Mogadishu with her seven children after mortar shells crashed into her house two months ago. In the mayhem, she was separated from her husband. "I don't know where he is," Ali said.
Her 14-year-old and 16-year-old sons work 14 hours a day, washing cars, cleaning houses or collecting garbage for local residents. On most days, they earn $1. "I want my children to have an education, but if we leave here, life could be worse," Ali said. "No one cares about us."
For the most part, help is limited. After two decades of conflict, famine and drought, the United Nations has had difficulty raising funds to assist Somalis, U.N. refugee officials say. There's donor fatigue and, in a post-9/11 world, nations are preoccupied with terrorism, security and other global crises. The United States, Somalia's main donor, has provided more than $185 million to Somalia's government and an African Union peacekeeping force, but withheld humanitarian funding this year, fearing that al-Shabab was siphoning off foreign aid.
More than 2 million Somalis have sought haven in U.N.-supported refugee camps in neighboring countries and in settlements in nearly every region of Somalia. The conflict has significantly blocked the ability of U.N. and humanitarian agencies to deliver aid to south and central Somalia, which are under al-Shabab's control.
Here, and in other settlements around Galkayo, women fear the night.
Two weeks ago, three masked gunmen entered Asha Muse's tent. In front of her four children, they beat her and her niece, Muna. The men tore the women's clothes off and took turns raping them for two hours. One attacker stabbed Muna in the thigh with a knife.
Another turned to Ali's son. "If you make a sound, we will kill you," Muse recalled him saying. Before they left, the men stole $85 and some clothes. "Everybody rapes women. The soldiers, the militias, everybody," said Hawa Aden Mohammed, an activist who runs a women's shelter in Galkayo where victims of rape and other gender-based violence seek shelter. Muse and her niece did not inform the police or aid workers. Muse has stopped collecting garbage, fearing her attackers will spot her. Her neighbors, who helplessly listened to their screams, look at her sympathetically. "We can't go back to Mogadishu. We can't afford to leave here. We know we will get raped again," said Muse, her tears filling her eyes. "But there's nothing we can do."