JOWHAR, Somalia (AP) – Some days, Lul Haji Adam listens to her youngest son wail with hunger as she scrupulously divides up the food she has scraped together between the 65 members of her extended family.

But the Somali mother, who lives in the relatively quiet middle region of Somalia, would never dream of closing the door on relatives fleeing the fighting in the capital, Mogadishu.

“I have so many mouths to feed. Sometimes, when there is nothing, I feel responsible,” she explained, squatting with her daughters by a pile of sacks containing grain and beans distributed by the U.N.’s World Food Program. “I feel a lot of pressure.”

Relief workers say this year most Somalis have had to cope with a series of disasters: floods, drought, violence and rising inflation. And now those Somalis living outside Mogadishu, which has suffered nearly daily violence, have to cope with relatives fleeing the capital to seek refuge with them, stretching them to the limit.

Already, 1.5 million of Somalia’s estimated 7 million people need food aid. Nearly 300,000 face severe food shortages in the Horn of Africa nation, aid workers say.

The hunger is at its most acute in the southern Somalia region of Shabelle that has served as the country’s breadbasket. Poor rains have yielded the worst harvest in 13 years, and an influx of 80,000 people to Jowhar, fleeing Mogadishu, has pushed up food prices beyond the reach of many locals.

“We cannot really improve their lives,” said Peter Goossens, the World Food Program’s Somalia country director. “All we can really do is to stop them from falling off the edge.”

There are no crowds of swollen bellies that haunt Western newsreels, but the hunger in this southern Somalia agricultural town of Jowhar is real.

A United Nations August survey said the situation is an emergency.

This is not news to Raila Disow Ibrahim. The slight, thin woman with graying hair slipped through the thorn fences that surrounded one distribution center to frantically scoop up dirt mixed with the corn that spilled from her neighbors’ sacks.

She fled Mogadishu four months ago but was building her hut when ration cards were distributed. Today she and her eight children received nothing. Her husband cannot find work in Jowhar.

“We eat once a day, if we are lucky,” says the 35-year old, sifting the dirty grains with roughened fingers. “If there is no food, we sleep.”

Ibrahim is one of the 350,000 the U.N. estimates have fled Mogadishu when fighting intensified earlier this year. Ethiopian troops and Somali government soldiers have been fighting Islamic insurgents this year, violence that has killed thousands of civilians.

In December, Somali government forces and their Ethiopian allies routed and a radical Islamic group called the Council of Islamic Courts that controlled Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia for six months last year. Since then they have fought remnants of the group.

Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991, when warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on each other, pulling the country into years of violence and anarchy.

The latest violence has seen the exodus of more people like 50-year-old Ibrahim Adam, Lul’s beloved older brother. He arrived at her house four months ago with his wife and 13 children. They walked 50 miles with only what they could carry.

“When Mum and Dad went to the farm, (Ibrahim) used to stay with me and protect me from the other kids, sometimes give me clothes or food,” Lul recalls, a gentle smile creasing her features. “I depended on him. That’s why he can come to me when he had a problem.”

Her help comes at a cost. Her youngest is too thin, and cries a lot. Since her husband died, 40-year-old Lul is the sole breadwinner for the family.

“We are more desperate than we look,” she says, gesturing to her daughters whose brightly colored shawls flit like butterflies between the sacks of food aid and yellow containers of vegetable oil. “We have no other source of food, no alternatives.”

But her face freezes when asked whether she would ever have to choose between her own children and her brother’s family.

“We would rather die together than shut the door,” she says.

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