Hundreds of civilians have over recent weeks fled the Somali port city of Kismayo, where tension is rising amid sporadic shelling by the Kenyan navy in the run-up to an African Union military operation to dislodge Al-Shabab militants from their last stronghold in the country.
Some 800 people left Kismayo between 30 August and 6 September, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which tracks population movements in Somalia.
“Business is not doing well because many of my customers fled,” a Kismayo shopkeeper told IRIN by phone.
“I used to make sales [equivalent to] about US$20 every day before, but I now earn about $10,” he added.
Those fleeing to other places in Lower Juba “appear to be doing so on a short-term basis as they temporarily return to Kismayo for different periods to safeguard livelihood assets, and are likely to return to Kismayo if the situation normalizes,” UNHCR spokesman Andreas Needham told IRIN.
Needham said Al Shabab “restrictions on movement of people and vehicles out of the city” might explain why the numbers of people leaving was not greater. He also noted that many of Kismayo’s residents had already left during various bouts of military activity over the past five years.
“It would appear that most of the people remaining in Kismayo are business people and who were intending not move outside the city,” he added.
Those who have fled recently, according to the Missionary International Service News Agency, include “entire families … old people [and] women and children, [who] fear being caught between two fires. Everyone knows that the attack by Somali and African forces on the city is imminent.”
The Kenyan navy has shelled the city on several occasions, most recently on the first weekend in September. Kenyan officials said the shelling was directed at Al-Shabab positions.
On 23 August, Human Rights Watch said, “Three civilians - boys aged 11 and 15, and a pregnant woman - are known to have died, and two others were wounded, apparently from shells fired by the Kenyan vessel” on 11 August.
The African Union force in Somalia, AMISOM, is open about its plans to “liberate” Kismayo. But while Kenya’s ground forces operate under AMISOM’s banner, its naval and air assets in Somalia do not.
“We will take responsibility for our military strikes, but we will not be responsible for any non-AMISOM strikes,” AMISOM spokesman Col Ali Aden told IRIN.
“AMISOM does not have any naval capabilities nor does it have air capabilities,” he added.
AMISOM troops and allied Somali government forces are currently positioned in Miido, a village 80km west of Kismayo, which has been major source of income for Al-Shabab, largely due to charcoal exports.
“The port is closed and there is not much business activity as a result of the shelling,” said an elder in the city who asked not to be identified by name.
“We are calling the Kenyan government to stop shelling the city because these shells can only be used when you have a precise military installation [to target],” he added.
Residents contacted by IRIN said that although there has been no dramatic change to the cost of living, education and businesses have been affected.
“My school is still open, but our studies have been interrupted several times during shelling,” said Ahmed, a student at Guulwade Secondary School.
“I do not know if I will finish my studies peacefully,” he added.
Another businessman said the bus fare to Mogadishu, 500km to the north, had increased from $20 to $30.
There is uncertainty over whether Al-Shabab will resist the AMISOM assault. Some have suggested the insurgents will withdraw - as they did from Mogadishu in 2011 - in the face of a superior military force.
But residents told IRIN the group had used loudspeakers mounted on vehicles to urge people, especially the youth, to join them in “jihad” against the “Christian crusaders” of AMISOM and the “apostate” government forces.