The ousting on 17 October of insurgents by pro-government forces in Bulo Hawo, a town in Somalia’s southwestern Gedo region elicited mixed emotions among war-weary residents, thousands of whom have taken flight.
“There is hope that the government takeover will lead to peace and stability but there is fear that this is not the end and more fighting will follow,” said Shukri Gedi, a resident of the town, which lies close to the Kenyan border.
Bulo Hawo, along with most of the Gedo region, had been under the control of the Islamist Al-Shabab insurgency for a year. The insurgents were chased out of the town by forces led by Barre Aden Hiirale, a member of the transitional parliament.
Gedi said many of her neighbours had fled the area and were trying to cross into Kenya “because they are afraid that fighting will start inside the town”.
A journalist in the town said Kenyan authorities prevented many of the displaced from crossing the border on 18 October, having allowed some through the previous day.
“The Kenyans have brought a lot military personnel on their side and are not allowing people in,” he said.
The UN Refugee Agency said it had received no reports of asylum-seekers being turned back at the border.
Although the border is officially closed, almost 35,000 Somalis entered Kenya as refugees in 2010.
Ahmed Mohamed Burkuus, an elder in the town, told IRIN he believed some 900 families, or 5,400 people had fled because of the fighting, and that many of them had previously been displaced from the capital, Mogadishu.
Burkuus said the fighting on 17 October took place just outside Bulo Hawo itself. But he added: “There is fear this morning [18 October] that fighting may break out inside the town and that is what is driving the current movement of people.”
He said that the local population was ill-prepared for more displacement.
“This is an area that is suffering from water shortages and dispersing people will make it even more difficult to help them.”
The local journalist, who requested anonymity, told IRIN Al-Shabab forces were about 15km from the town and were reportedly awaiting reinforcements.
“The two sides are not far from each other and fighting can resume any time,” the journalist said, adding that the new, pro-government group had placed the town under curfew from 6pm to 7am.
Others in the town were more optimistic.
“If this fighting for control of Bulo Hawo ends now, then we do have a chance of peace and stability and our town can recover and resume normal commercial activity,” said one resident.
He said Bulo Hawo was a thriving trade route between Somalia and Kenya “but in the last few years because of constant fighting we are losing our place.”
In a statement on 17 October, Somalia’s Information Ministry said: “Somali government forces have on Sunday morning [17 October] recaptured Bulo Hawo District, in southwestern Gedo region of Somalia, bordering Kenya. Somali government forces have been preparing in Gedo, Bakol and Hiraan regions to bring peace and stability to these regions as part of government plans to bring rule of law to all over Somalia.”
In the statement, Information Minister Abdirahman Omar Osman said: “Today’s victory is a gain for Somalis, the Somali flag and freedom. Government forces will continue their struggle until they liberate the entire [country] from the brutal rule of Al-Shabab.”
As well as parts of Mogadishu and now Bulo Hawo in Gedo region, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government and its allies control most of Galgadud region in the centre of the country, and the town of Dolow on the Ethiopian border.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]