When fighting broke out in the central Somali town of Guri’el last week, it was a stark reminder of how political power struggles can take a harsh toll on civilians. Although it’s unclear how many civilians have been killed and injured, hundreds are reported to have fled.

On February 10, the Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama’a (ASWJ) militia, a Sufi Islamist group, attacked Guri’el, recapturing it from the Somali National Army. A doctor at the main hospital told us that over the course of two days they treated 21 civilians, including 11 women and at least 3 children between 3 and 13 years old, all with bullet wounds. A local journalist said he had seen three dead civilians. On the second day of fighting, an elderly woman was killed when fighters took shelter in her home; a relative, Hassan (not his real name), told us she was shot in the back of the neck as she tried to escape. He said two of his neighbors had also been killed.

“The government forces and ASWJ militia fight in the town without any consideration for civilians,” Hasan said. “We have no shelter and no hope that the warring parties will respect our humanity.”

This was the latest skirmish between ASWJ and government forces over this strategic town, which had been the militia’s stronghold for years.  Government forces haven’t won back the town. And this is but one of Somalia’s simmering armed conflicts, which are all often overshadowed in the media by the armed Islamist group Al-Shabaab.  

In central Somalia, political maneuvering and clan differences over the possible establishment of a new state have increased tensions. The stakes are high, and unfortunately the region’s leaders have learned that showing a strong arm is often one of the best ways to get a seat at the table when states and leadership are being defined.

As has been the case throughout Somalia’s 24-year-long civil war, the stakes have ultimately been highest for civilians.

Hundreds are said to have fled to neighboring villages, despite particularly harsh conditions brought on by seasonal drought. “You could cry if you see how many children and elderly people are suffering. But we are expecting a peace deal in Guri’el in order to return to our houses,” said Hassan, referring to negotiations currently underway that are brokering an initial ceasefire.

While getting the warring parties around a table is important, no one should lose sight of what should be central to Somalia’s state-building effort: ensuring that Hassan, his community and all the other communities are no longer forced to flee for their lives and are protected by those in positions of authority, whoever they may be.