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250,000 Somalis flee dangers of capital for sprawling camp

  • Story Highlights
  • Estimated 250,000 people live in camp of huts along road outside Mogadishu
  • The Somalis have abandoned homes in capital because of violence, destruction
  • At camp, makeshift huts stretch for miles; food aid is scarce
  • U.N. says camp is biggest gathering of internally displaced people in the world
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From Barbara Starr
CNN Pentagon Correspondent
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(CNN) -- The woman walked into the sprawling camp outside the Somali capital last month carrying her month-old baby, with her other seven children in tow.

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Makeshift huts stretch to the horizon at the camp near Afgooye, Somalia.

Her husband had been killed the previous day, crushed to death when a shell demolished the family's home.

"So she had been left with nothing. Her husband, who was the income earner, was dead," said Patrick Duplat of Refugees International. "She had no family, no relatives, and she just walked all the way to this camp in the search for safety. And this story is not an extraordinary story. It's the story of most of the people who have settled there."

Duplat and Erin Weir of the Washington-based humanitarian group spent time last month at the city of huts, which stretches for at least 10 miles along a road just west of the capital, Mogadishu, outside the town of Afgooye. Video Watch what aid workers found in the camp »

"The conditions are dire," Weir said. "What you see is just a mass of people who have fled from Mogadishu and have settled very informally on the road, between Mogadishu and Afgooye. Most of them had to flee without anything at all, and so they've built huts out of sticks and pieces of cloth."

"I've been to quite a lot of refugee camps, and this is simply the largest concentration of displaced people in the world. It's absolutely massive," Duplat said.

Although other countries may have larger totals for internally displaced people -- Iraq has nearly 3 million, according to the United Nations refugee agency -- the U.N. calls the Afgooye camp "probably the single largest IDP [internally displaced persons] gathering in the world today."

Refugees International estimates that there are 200,000 to 250,000 people living there, with more arriving every day.

These days, Somalia is so dangerous that most western aid workers spend little more than 24 hours at a time on the ground. Duplat and Weir were protected by privately arranged security personnel while they visited the Afgooye camp. They shared their impressions, their video and still pictures, exclusively with CNN.

People are abandoning their homes in Mogadishu and fleeing to the camp because of the violence and danger in the capital, Weir said. See a map »

"Most of the people that we interviewed said they'd fled because their homes had been shelled, their family members killed, they'd lost their livelihood," she said. "People are leaving because they've been left with nothing and because they fear for their lives."

When they arrive at the roadside settlement, they face the challenges of building a hut and finding food. Many seek out family or friends who fled ahead of them.

The U.N. and other agencies are providing aid, but as more people arrive every day, the conditions become more difficult, Duplat said.

"It's one of the most massive aid operations in the world, but at the same time, they can't keep up. The food is never enough; water is never enough. If somebody arrives the day after food distribution, they have to wait until the next month to get food," he said.

The U.N. said last week that "numerous obstacles" prevent humanitarian aid from reaching all those in need. They include "administrative delays, restrictions or delays in movement of goods, targeting of humanitarian workers and assets including the looting of aid and carjackings, piracy [and] negative perception of humanitarian workers," among others.

Somalia, in East Africa, has been wracked with violence for years. Islamist insurgents have been battling government and Ethiopian troops in Mogadishu and elsewhere since they were ousted from power in December 2006. Islamist groups seized power from U.S.-backed warlords in mid-2006.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says that by the end of 2007, an estimated 1 million Somalis were displaced from their homes inside the country, and thousands more were fleeing to neighboring countries. About 60,000 Somalis have fled Mogadishu in only the first three months of this year.

Refugees International issued a report last week whose recommendations include a "dramatic" increase in UNHCR staff in Somalia and U.S. condemnation of human rights abuses allegedly committed by Ethiopian forces.

But, Duplat said, "there is no silver bullet in Somalia. If there was, somebody would have found it."

When Duplat and Weir climbed on the roof of a building at the camp, they were stunned by what they saw.

"My most enduring memory is quite clearly walking on the roof of that school and seeing the extent of displacement," Duplat said.

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"It is the largest camp in the world, and I think it's tragic to see that families who used to live in a city -- had homes, apartments, kitchens -- now live in huts and with very little hope of going back.

"And all the people that we speak to want us to bring their voices and their story to the international community, because all they hear on the news are news of other crises, and they feel left out." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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