Elasha Biyaha, Somalia – In a town not far from Mogadishu, vehicles slow to a crawl to negotiate the potholes that dot the town’s only tarmac road; ownerless donkeys wander about, scavenging for food; once-elegant villas with shining rooftops are now abandoned, with overgrown vegetation taking over their compounds.
This is Elasha Biyaha – a town 16 kilometres southwest of the capital that was once home to more than half a million residents at the height of Somalia’s civil war. People escaping the battles raging on the streets of Mogadishu fled here during the past fifteen years; schools, universities, hospitals and shopping malls soon followed.
Last May, the tides turned on the town, as al-Shabaab, an armed group fighting to turn Somalia into an Islamic state, withdrew from the area under pressure from the Somali National Army and African Union forces (AMISOM).
The aftermath has seen an ongoing fight for control of the town. Most people have fled, leaving a mere several thousand residents, and a formerly bustling town lies nearly vacant.
“The media told the town residents there will be a bloodbath, that al-Shabaab will fight the government soldiers and AMISOM in the town,” said Abdullahi Jama Siyat, the local district commissioner.
“Everyone fled. When we took over the town was empty. Only dogs, donkeys and cats were left.”
The safety of residents is precarious, with only four police officers employed – and no police station.
“Security is at best 50 percent of what it was before. 90 percent of the people haven’t come back because of safety fears,” said Nurdin Mohamed Jibril, a resident who has remained with his two children.
Faltering livelihoods and services
As a result, residents say their livelihoods and the town’s basic services have collapsed.
The town’s eight universities, which boasted students from across the entire region, have all shut down as students stopped attending. The town’s primary schools have suffered a similar fate. Twelve months ago there were seventeen primary schools, but now only one has students attending classes.
First the shops closed, then the schools, then, no water or electricity. Then they started fighting and we couldn't move freely. I will not go back until things get better.
“Because of the safety situation all the parents left the town with their children,” said Omar Maalin Abdi, the principle of Iftin – the only open primary school. He explained that the school’s 650 students had dwindled to a mere 39.
Jobs have likewise been lost, and the local electricity plant said it has laid off 70 percent of its staff.
“We used to supply electricity to 2,300 families, but supply only 250 families now so we had to lay off 21 employees,” said Abdullahi Sheekow of Somali Ilys Energy Company.
“We will have to lay off some of the remaining nine staff if the situation doesn’t improve.”
And at Marwa Shopping Centre, the town’s main shopping mall, only eight shops still remain opened with more than fifty closed. Rent prices for shops have likewise nosedived, but some see this as a new opportunity for those who couldn’t previously afford it.
“Before, the monthly rent for the cheapest shop was $600, but now the most expensive rent for a shop is $100 a month,” said shop owner Bashir Nur Mohamed.
Many of those businesses have moved to Mogadishu, with a number of them planning not to return to Elasha Biyaha.
“I moved to Mogadishu after 85 percent of my customers moved here,” said Adullahi Mustaf Shiino from behind the counter of his new shop in the capital’s Hodan District. “I go where my customers go, and now almost all of them are here.”
The local district commissioner blames the media for scaring away the locals. “Yes, the town is not what it was, but [the media] needs to tell them al-Shabaab aren’t here anymore,” said Siyat.
“They should return to their homes and not live in IDP (internally displaced person) camps in Mogadishu.”
But for Safiya Mohamed Hassan, a mother of six who now lives in one of the capital’s IDP camps, moving back to Elasha Biyaha is not an option.
“I will only move back if things get back to how they were before or better,” she said. “First the shops closed, then the schools, then, no water or electricity. Then they started fighting and we couldn’t move freely. I will not go back until things get better.”
Back in the town, residents hope their homes can be revived.
As the imam at the town’s main mosque finishes Friday prayers, he leads the small congregation in praying for peace and the return of the town’s residents.
Haji Ali Ahmed, an elder in the congregration, speaks on their behalf.
“This town needs its residents. A town without people is not a town. We ask our brothers and sisters to return to their homes and shops.”
Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa