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Somalis fear tyranny of al-Shabaab as they flee drought-stricken areas

By David McKenzie, CNN
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Somalis flee drought, terror
  • Al-Shabaab is targeting civilians trying to reach help amid famine, refugees say
  • Al-Shabaab is al Qaeda-linked group trying to impose a strict form of Sharia law
  • In 2009, the group banned several international agencies from areas it controls
  • Areas hardest hit by the drought are still not getting the aid that is needed

Dollow, Somalia (CNN) -- A few weeks ago, Sengaba Ibrahim began her march through the arid wasteland of Somalia's famine zones, an arduous trek not just for this 60-year-old woman, but for thousands of others who chance their lives in search of food and water in the drought-stricken region.

Traveling by foot at night, Ibrahim managed to escape an ominous threat: all along the road, Al-Shabaab gunmen manned checkpoints, targeting civilians trying to escape.

"They blocked the road for anyone coming here," Ibrahim said. "And whoever got caught, they took them to the bush and killed them."

Al-Shabaab is a radical al Qaeda-linked group challenging Somalia's central government, fighting an endless civil war and forcing a strict form of Sharia law on local residents. Despite the drought -- which has left nearly 12 million people in the Horn of Africa in need of assistance -- the group has stopped many organizations and agencies from delivering aid to areas it controls.

Famine continues to spread in Somalia
Somalia seeks salvation
Militants pull out of Mogadishu
Aid workers in danger in Somalia
  • Somalia
  • Mogadishu
  • Al Shabaab
  • African Union

In 2009, the group banned several international agencies from such Al-Shabaab-controlled areas. Now, some groups have been allowed in, but areas hardest hit by the drought are not getting the large-scale assistance needed.

For Ibrahim, however, the threat of hunger was, at times, overshadowed by Al-Shabaab's campaign of systematic brutality against the civilian population.

"Al Shabaab's incursions into local villages are common," Ibrahim said. "We watched as Al Shabaab took our animals and murdered our men."

Their favorite tool is a traditional knife, or "torey," she said.

Failure to obey Al Shabaab's strictest form of Sharia law can lead to horrific punishments.

"They would make the men cover their eyes and call out 'praise be to Allah,'" she said, "and with a long curved knife chopped off their head."

Three of her relatives were killed by stoning.

Here, in Dollow, on the border with Ethiopia, thousands of refugees hunker down in make-shift camps, built with what remains of their personal wealth: a few rags and boughs from the bush.

Dollow serves as a transit point to Dollo Ado, Ethiopia, where a UNHCR food distribution site is about a two-hour walk away.

On most days, refugee huts are vacant as the hunt begins for food aid. Women line up with their children for food, shelter and medicines. It is often the policy of aid groups to give food to women, rather than men.

But the absence of men is no accident.

There are very few men in this camp. Men are often engaged in fighting the civil war. Most of the male survivors are elderly.

And person after person told CNN that their husbands have been killed by Al Shabaab.

Shamso Hassan, who escaped just days ago, said many of the men in her village were killed. Some of the survivors, such as her elderly father, Abdul Yousuf, managed to escape.

"There was heavy fighting going on in our area. We were hiding and some men came into our house. They took my husband out and they slaughtered him like a goat," Hassan said, passing her finger across her throat.

As more stream out of Somalia's famine to areas of safety and help, it appears that the crisis is as much about violence as it is about nature.

CNN's Helena de Moura contributed to this report.