Hundreds of thousands of people are stranded in Somalia’s drought-hit countryside after fleeing fighting in the disputed northern city of Las Anod, with cash-strapped aid agencies struggling to reach those in need.
Heavy fighting began in February between the security forces of breakaway Somaliland, which have occupied Las Anod since 2007, and local clans demanding separation and direct administration by Somalia’s federal government in Mogadishu.
As mortar shells fired by Somaliland soldiers started falling in Las Anod, the capital of the Sool region, Zeinab Abdi Kareem, a widow, packed up her 12 children and fled.
Travelling with other families, crowded in the back of a large truck, they made their way to the small town of Ari Addeye. Unable to find shelter there, they tried another town, Yahed, then another – days on dirt roads in scorching heat.
Finally, they reached an informal refugee camp outside the town of Kalabaydh. Yet they found little assistance here either.
“The only thing we get is water, but there is no food,” Kareem told The New Humanitarian. “There is almost nothing inside or outside the camp.”
By February, at least 185,000 people (locals say more than 200,000 people) – mostly women, children, and the elderly – had fled to Las Anod’s surrounding villages, looking for shelter in a countryside already stricken by five consecutive seasons of drought.
Another 100,000 people have crossed the border into neighbouring Ethiopia, where aid agencies describe their condition as “dire”, with many under-five children and pregnant and nursing mothers suffering moderate acute malnutrition.
“We have not gotten much assistance here, but we found water.”
In March, with the relief effort faltering, UN agencies called for an additional $116 million in donor funding to help cover the needs of both groups of people forced from their homes by the fighting. Only 2% of the money has been received, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, said in a statement on 8 June.
Most of those escaping the violence have settled in informal camps like the one in Kalabaydh, or have been absorbed into local villages, already straining under the impact of a punishing drought that has decimated people’s livestock – the basis of the local economy.
The World Food Programme is helping more than 70,000 conflict-affected people with immediate food assistance for three months, primarily through in-kind food but also with some cash assistance, according to an email from a WFP representative.
But Sahra Hussein Hassan, looking after grandchildren following the unrelated death of her daughter, is yet to feel the impact of that aid.
Like Kareem, she also made a long trip through multiple towns searching for a place to settle. At Kalabaydh, she was given plastic tarps and was able to create a temporary shelter for herself and the grandchildren – but there has been little else.
“We have not gotten much assistance here, but we found water,” she told The New Humanitarian. “We have yet to receive any food or money.”
The crisis in Las Anod began as an escalating series of conflicts between the occupying Somaliland forces – who claim the area based on colonial-era boundaries – and members of the local Dhulbahante clan.
When a popular local politician was killed by an unknown gunman in December 2022 – part of a long history of killings in the city – it sparked youth-led street protests. Somaliland’s security forces responded with live ammunition, killing a number of people, which triggered retaliation from local clan militias.
After clashing with clan fighters in the city, Somaliland troops withdrew to the outskirts of Las Anod to cool tensions, local leaders told The New Humanitarian. However, Dhulbahante elders saw the retreat as an opportunity to declare that Las Anod, and the northern regions of Sool, Sanaag, and Cayn (SCC), were no longer under the authority of Somaliland’s self-declared independent government.
They instead demanded unification with Somalia, as the federal state of SSC-Khaatumo, rejecting both Somaliland – which has long-ignored the Dhulbahante’s deep-seated grievances – and neighbouring Puntland’s previous claims to the territory.
The declaration by Dhulbahante elders, made in early February after a conference to debate the way forward, kicked off fighting once again with Somaliland’s military – for whom the Sool region is a key part of Somaliland identity.
With Somaliland’s forces unable to gain ground in house-to-house fighting on the fringes of Las Anod, they began shelling the city with artillery, rockets, and mortars. The ensuing damage to homes, mosques, schools, and the regional hospital killed and injured civilians, causing the majority of the Las Anod’s residents to flee.
Kalabayd, a town of roughly 7,000 residents before the fighting broke out, now supports some 30,000 refugees, camped in the town and surrounding areas. The influx has pushed every aspect of life to the brink. Schools have shut down, their grounds dotted with makeshift tents and tarp shelters for those unable to find a spot inside classrooms, where families have crowded into every corner.
“They do not have shelters that can protect them from rain. Women do not have toilets.”
A plot of land outside town was set aside for the displaced to create a camp, but water is only available when trucked in by tankers, and food is even harder to find. Local residents have been bringing what food they can to displaced families, but it is not nearly enough.
“Drought has compounded the situation,” said Merick Freedy Alagbe, who oversees operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in northern Somalia. “With this new wave of displaced people, it is difficult for the host communities to support them. People already have their resources completely depleted.”
The ICRC has been giving cash assistance to some 6,000 families, providing them with $130 per month to buy food and supplies, but with informal camps springing up around the region, and families being absorbed into neighbouring towns, it’s difficult for aid agencies to reach all those in need.
The current lull in major fighting has allowed the ICRC and other agencies to work in the area safely, but security and the potential for renewed clashes are an ongoing concern.
Hawa Abdi Ali Kaar, a volunteer from Garowe, the Puntland region’s capital, has been providing services to the displaced since the outbreak of the violence. She has shifted the focus of her charity – the Daryeel Volunteer Women’s Organisation – from peacebuilding and awareness-raising around gender-based violence to supporting the influx of families.
“Our biggest problem is that people here do not have enough food,” she told The New Humanitarian. “They do not have shelters that can protect them from rain. Women do not have toilets.”
For the last three months, she has coordinated with diaspora donors to deliver food rations and water trucks. Currently, her organisation is working on sanitation projects for the camps, but she is also mediating between the host communities and displaced people as the strain on local resources increases.
The federal government in Mogadishu, dealing with drought, displacement – as well as the fight against the jihadist group al-Shabab – doesn’t have the capacity to provide additional aid to those displaced by the Las Anod crisis.
“We’ve tried to help as much as we can, but due to the scale of the devastation, we don’t have the means,” said Jama Hassan Khalif, Somalia’s minister of communications, on a visit to Las Anod in May.
No end to the conflict
Khalif called on the international community to increase their response to both the conflict and the humanitarian needs of the displaced, calling the lack of engagement a “black spot”.
Since 18 May, there have not been any major clashes between the two warring sides, although shelling has hit Las Anod, with mortars exploding at the regional hospital and in residential areas as recently as 1 June.
This month, the UN Security Council issued a statement condemning the violence against civilians and calling on Somaliland’s forces to withdraw from their positions in the region.
That retreat is unlikely, and Somaliland’s de facto foreign ministry responded with a statement accusing the Dhulbahante militia of engaging in “incitement, violence, and misinformation” against the breakaway region’s forces.
Leaders in Las Anod, from clan elders to the mayor and the transitional council working to administer the would-be state of SSC-Khaatumo, are all steadfast in their resolve that all Somaliland forces must withdraw – not just from the front lines outside the city, but from the entirety of the Sool, Sanaag, and Cayn regions inhabited by the Dhulbahante.
That would mean a massive land concession by Somaliland – a move that president Muse Bihi and his administration in the self-declared capital of Hargeisa are almost sure to find unacceptable.
For now, the forces of both sides remain in the field, exchanging artillery fire, but either unwilling or unable to engage in an offensive that would dramatically shift the conflict in either direction.
Edited by Obi Anyadike.