Mogadishu — A climate of fear and uncertainty has settled over of Hudur in south-western Somalia since al-Shabaab re-took the town last Sunday (March 17th) from retreating Somali and Ethiopian forces, residents say.
About 2,000 Hudur residents fled from the return of the militants, who had blockaded the town and cut off food supplies since allied forces forced al-Shabaab to relinquish control of the Bakol regional capital in March 2012.
Upon entering Hudur, al-Shabaab officials assembled the town's few remaining residents, assuring them they had nothing to fear.
The next day, the militants stoked intimidation by brutally killing the town's most prominent cleric, 75-year-old Sheikh Abdirahman Moalin Warsame. They also reportedly killed two other residents, including a woman they accused of working for the government.
Residents paralysed by fear:
Even though the militants told locals to stay calm and go about their normal business, Abdi Yonis, a 34-year-old Hudur resident who attended the public assembly, said al-Shabaab's promises were an insincere ploy to allay residents' fears and discourage them from fleeing the town.
"So far they have arrested four people, including a woman," Yonis told Sabahi. "The rest of the people are afraid and are wondering what they will do next."
Muna Ali, a 27-year-old mother of two, said the situation in Hudur has changed drastically in a matter of a few days, with fear paralysing the city's population.
Ali told Sabahi that since al-Shabaab's arrival, schools and markets have closed because people are not leaving their homes.
"I never thought I would see a situation like this in Hudur," she said. "Fear and loneliness is everywhere."
Mustafa Ahmed, 35, said the conditions in Hudur are the worst he has seen in a while. Among the most shocking details, he said, has been the discovery of children living in houses alone after their parents abandoned them, fearing the arrival of al-Shabaab.
"An estimated 300 al-Shabaab fighters armed with light weapons entered the city. They have about 10 vehicles with them, some of which are armoured. Most of them are young people," he told Sabahi. "There are also some foreign fighters among the occupiers, but their number is unclear."
Since al-Shabaab's return, economic activity has come to a standstill. Many shopkeepers fled and the handful remaining have barricaded themselves in their homes, Ahmed said.
Fadumo Ibrahim, a 35-year-old mother of five, said she fled out of desperation with her family to El Barde, a town 90 kilometres north of Hudur. Ibrahim and her family, along with other locals, had to walk for three days without food or water before reaching El Barde.
"We all feared al-Shabaab would accuse us of working for the [Somali] government," she said, adding that before allied forces left the town, militants would routinely harass locals saying that anyone who stayed in Hudur was an accomplice to the government.
Ibrahim urged the federal government to act swiftly to regain control of the city and help residents who fled return home.
Somali Deputy Defence Minister Ahmed Mohamed Mohamud addressed the Hudur crisis in a statement on Radio Mogadishu. "We will consult on the issue with other officers from these regions on how to respond to the current situation in the Bakol region," he said.
AMISOM vows to replace Ethiopian forces:
The withdrawal of Somali and Ethiopian troops from Hudur has raised concerns about a wider pull-out of Ethiopian forces from the Bay and Bakol regions, including from the strategically important town of Baidoa.
So far, Hudur is the only major town Ethiopian forces have pulled out of, but troops are also reportedly packing kit in Baidoa in apparent preparation to leave.
Nonetheless, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) said in a statement on Thursday that that it was working closely with the Somali government to re-establish a security presence in the area.
"We have in place contingent measures to ensure that areas in Bay and Bakol where AMISOM are co-located with Somali National Security Forces remain stable and secure in the event of further Ethiopian troop withdrawals," AMISOM Force Commander Lieutenant General Andrew Gutti said. "We are conducting a review of our troop deployments there and in Hiran and remain confident that there will be sufficient coverage."
Somali Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon condemned the sheikh's murder and said the government was planning to retake Hudur.
"This barbaric act will do nothing to stop us from moving forward and we are now working flat out with Somali National Forces, together with our partners, to retake the town," he said. "We will prevail."