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In famine's 6th month, some Somalis go home

MOGADISHU, Somalia - Six months after the U.N. declared Somalia's capital a famine zone, the number of refugees in the capital is dwindling, as most of the men have gone home to try to revive devastated herds and withered crops.

The women — and the kids — would like to join them, but many don't have enough money. That means fewer hands on the farm and a smaller harvest.

At a sprawling Mogadishu refugee camp that holds 2,700 stick huts, one woman said she was grateful for a plastic sheet over her ramshackle stick hut that keeps her children dry. For another woman, it's a daily cup of porridge for everyone in her family. A third woman says there are fewer problems than there used to be.

But hardship — and danger — remain. U.N. security personnel say there have been six improvised explosive devices found or detonated in Mogadishu the last two days, including a blast Thursday at a police checkpoint near a refugee camp that exploded shortly after U.N. personnel and international journalists visited a nearby feeding site. Two police and four refugees were killed in the blast, which did not appear to be aimed at the visiting delegation.

Somali police forces have been fighting each other at a key intersection, and Somali government soldiers in a highly contested Mogadishu neighborhood have abandoned their posts because they have not been paid.

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But one promising sign is a lack of men in the refugee camps. Many have gone home to plant crops and try to resurrect herds devastated by a crippling drought. The drought in the parts of Somalia controlled by al-Shabab militants — who allow few aid groups in — turned into famine. Seasonal rains have fallen in drought areas in recent weeks, raising hopes that the situation will improve.

"The situation is getting better now because our farms are growing again. We can go back and feed ourselves without depending on anybody," said Halima Mohammed Abdulla, a mother of five who has been living in a Mogadishu refugee camp for five months.

Like many other women here, she said she would like to go home but doesn't have enough money to pay for transportation. Another woman, Halima Haji Mohammed Omar, said her husband was planting fewer crops, because the family's children were not around to help, a trend that could result in an overall smaller harvest.

After months without rainfall across the region, the U.N. on July 20 declared several parts of Somalia a famine zone. Exhausted, rail-thin women were stumbling into refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia with dead babies and bleeding feet.

The journeys sometimes took weeks, and weaker family members — children and the elderly — were left behind on the way to die alone. The U.N. expanded Somalia's famine zone a couple weeks later, defined as when two adults or four children per 10,000 people die of hunger each day and a third of children are acutely malnourished.

Aid groups quickly sent in planes and boats full of food, though a critical report written by two prominent aid agencies that was released this week said government and aid groups were much too slow to respond despite early warnings of impending disaster. The crisis was the worse since 1991-92, when hundreds of thousands of Somalis starved to death.

This time around, the British government estimates that between 50,000 and 100,000 people died, most of them children. Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti were all badly affected, but the famine hit hardest in areas of Somalia suffering from a toxic mixture of drought, war, high taxes levied by armed groups, and rising food prices. Aid groups said up to 13 million people needed aid at one point.

Parched land suffering from the worst drought in 60 years refused to grow crops, and vast herds of goats, sheep and camel died. That's when families began the perilous journey to refugee camps. Many women faced the prospect of sexual assault along the way.

In a sign of improving farm life, thousands of Somali men are now returning home. Abdinur Haji said he is almost ready to harvest crops he planted with a few hundred dollars given to him by aid groups.

"Our children can eat well again and fill their stomachs with food," Haji said by phone.

Elmi Addow, a farmer in the Hiran region, said: "My farm is in the final stages before harvesting the crops. It's a good return out of the drought."

Pastoralists — communities who roam the land with goats, camels and sheep — are trying to revive their herds.

"Our livestock have been grazing well as the ground is covered with grass and there is plenty of ponds around the village," said Sabriye Amin, a resident in the town of Jilib.

Though things are improving, World Food Program spokeswoman Challis McDonough said that in many cases it will take three rainy seasons for Somalis to rebuild their herds.

"People sort of assume that because the rains have started that the crisis is over because things have started to grow, but crops haven't been harvested yet," she said. "Rainfall has improved the situation. The number of people we will be assisting will be dropping in coming months."

Thursday's blast at a refugee camp underscored the dangers refugees face. African Union and Somali forces for the most part have forced militants from the al-Shabab militant group out of Mogadishu, but pockets of resistance remain and the militants continue to carry out strikes like suicide attacks and roadside bombs.

"I never thought refugee camps would be targeted," said Abdi Warsame, a blast victim, as he lay in a Mogadishu hospital. "It was an intentional attack. Not no much can be done against those men," he said, referring to al-Shabab, "because they penetrated the camp, so no one can stop them. May Allah bring a power that can stop them."

The aid group Doctors Without Borders said Thursday it is closing its two largest medical centers in Mogadishu after the shooting deaths of two staffers in late December. The group, which is also known by its French acronym of MSF, said the two 120-bed medical facilities treat malnutrition, measles and cholera. Other MSF projects will remain open.

Dangers remain in the Somali countryside as well. One refugee woman in Mogadishu, Halima Haji Mohammed Omar, said she does not want to return home because of the presence of militants . Omar said al-Shabab tried to conscript her 20-year-old son.

"How can I go back? There is no reason to back when there is still a war," said Omar, whose husband has returned to plant crops. "They beat us, they conscripted our children."