Fearing renewed warfare, hundreds of Somalis loaded up small children and household goods on donkey-powered carts Wednesday in a northern Mogadishu neighborhood where Islamist militants are taking up positions.
Fighters from the militant group al-Shabab dug new trenches and blocked off streets with sandbags, residents said, as minivans and wooden carts moved out using alleyways and side streets to avoid sniper fire. Young, barefoot children lugging bags walked for hours with their parents, some of whom used carts pulled by donkeys to leave the area.
Fighting broke out over the weekend and lasted through Monday, killing at least 20 civilians and one African Union soldier. Somali military officials have asked residents near al-Shabab-held areas to leave, and a lull in the fighting has opened a window of time for a safe getaway.
"We are so lucky to have fled from there safely," Ali Shikhow, a father of six, said as he unloaded his belongings from a minivan at Mogadishu's Hodan bus station.
"I am sure many people cannot leave because they can't afford the illogically expensive car rentals," he added. "I paid $150 to get my family and some utensils and mattresses out of there."
Seasonal rains in Mogadishu have added to the misery of both residents fleeing the fighting and Somalis living in makeshift hunger camps. A wide-scale famine in the country threatens hundreds of thousands of lives, and tens of thousands of Somalis who fled famine in the country's south now live in tents in Mogadishu made of sticks and cloth.
Al-Shabab has controlled most of Mogadishu for several years, but the group fled the capital in August in what its leaders said was a tactical pullout. The militant group has since returned, though. The fighters set off a truck bomb last week that killed more than 100 people as students tried to learn if they had won a scholarship to attend school in Turkey.
Still, only a a few areas remain in militant hands, and African Union troops are trying to push the fighters out of the last strongholds. Large columns of Somali troops and African Union troops moving toward those pockets in recent days are an indication that new fighting could break out.
"We could not dare stay there because of the daily gunfire and mortars flying around," said Ubax Farah, who fled from Wahar Adde, a semi-deserted neighborhood in northern Mogadishu where militants ordered residents not to cut overgrown trees because it could provide good cover.
"Everyone is afraid of getting caught by the crossfire. The only choice is to flee," she said.
Rains in Mogadishu have washed out makeshift homes used by Somalis fleeing the country's famine and those fleeing violence. While the precipitation is welcomed by farmers, the rain is making camp residents miserable and increases the risk of an outbreak of waterborne disease.
"Difficulties surround us on both sides, so we have to take this new predicament (rain) instead of the other one (violence)" said Shukri Sheikh Salad, who fled the fighting.
The African Union force on Monday said the latest military battle was launched to push militants back from a range where their mortars can hit civilians. Spokesman Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda said 12 civilians were killed Sunday from such attacks. A medical official said eight more people were killed in fighting on Monday. An African Union soldier also died.
The attacks and battles with al-Shabab come as the Horn of Africa nation continues to suffer through its worst drought in 60 years. Tens of thousands of Somalis have already perished, and the U.N. says more than 750,000 are at risk of starvation in the next several months.
Somalia has not had a functioning government in two decades. Most of the recent security gains in Mogadishu have come from the work of African Union forces from Uganda and Burundi.