“We can’t afford to keep fleeing,” said “Halima,” a 35-year-old mother of four who recently fled fighting in the contested town of Galkayo in central Somalia. “Those fighting might have big houses to hide in, but we live in tents and the bullets can easily reach us.” 

Halima (not her real name) is among thousands of Somalis affected by renewed violence in Galkayo, stemming from conflict between the Galmudug interim administration that was established in 2015, and Puntland – a conflict that is deeply rooted in regional and clan rivalries. The town of Galkayo lies on the fault line of that conflict. 

Internally displaced Somalis stand outside a makeshift Muslim Madrasa (Islamic school) at the Halabokhad IDP settlement in Galkayo, northwest of Somalia's capital Mogadishu, July 20, 2011.

© 2011 Reuters

On October 7, 2016, forces from Puntland, which controls the north of the town, and Galmudug, which controls the south, clashed in the Garsoor area where a “green line” divides the two administrations. The outbreak of fighting comes nearly a year after another face-off between the two regional forces. Once again, civilians are paying a heavy price. Halima had already fled a year ago from fighting in the Garsoor area, which hosts many displacement camps including her own.

It is not clear yet how many people have been injured or killed in the fighting but medical officials told Human Rights Watch that at least 22 people have been killed, including at least four civilians, and dozens have been injured. Doctors say the injuries are mainly bullet wounds. Najma (not her real name), a resident of a displacement camp, saw two young men shot on October 7, as they fled the camp for safety; a third was shot dead. Residents in the town report hearing heavy weaponry during the three weeks of fighting.  

The fighters on both sides appear to show little regard for civilians or their property. Halima said that on October 7, “the bullets were flying everywhere from early in the morning until night time” across the Donyale camp where she lives, hitting several shops and tents. In south Galkayo, the director of the hospital told Human Rights Watch that during the week of October 10, they moved patients to a facility eight kilometers outside of the town as the fighting came dangerously close. The head of the main hospital in Puntland-controlled Galkayo said that on October 10, a man visiting the hospital’s morgue was wounded by a stray bullet.  

Galkayo is emptying out. According to the United Nations, at least 75,000 people have fled, including those living in displacement camps. Halima and Najma are among those who have sought safety elsewhere, finding refuge with relatives or sleeping outdoors in displacement camps on the outskirts of the town. Three weeks on, with reports of more people fleeing heavy fighting over the last 48 hours, their fate, like many others, is unclear. 

The suffering inflicted on civilians is largely ignored. Those in control should ensure civilians are protected from harm and that humanitarian aid – water, food, shelter – can reach all those in need. Those responsible for abuses owe the victims adequate compensation. Puntland and Galmudug officials need to make the safety of the population central, not an afterthought.