DHOBLEY, Somalia (Reuters) - The semi-arid lands surrounding the frontier town of Dhobley in southern Somalia have become a dust-bowl, the thorny scrub stripped of all vegetation as famine grips the region and an exodus of the starving empties its villages.
Dhobley's buildings are riddled with bullet holes, the scars of battles earlier this year when Somali troops and fighters from the Ras Kamboni militia, allied to the embattled government, routed Islamist militants from the frontier town.
Gunmen draped in ammunition belts ride heavily armed 4x4s, maintaining a jumpy peace. The al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab rebels are now hunkered down just 20 km (12 miles) to the east in the village of Dagalama and 30 km (20 miles) to the south in Hawina.
The scene is similar across many parts of southern Somalia where the United Nations declared a famine last month, putting 3.7 million Somalis, the majority of them in southern rebel-controlled regions, at risk of starvation.
Abdullahi Abdisalam can only watch as the region's worst drought in decades decimates his livestock herd and pushes food prices beyond the reach of most, slowly squeezing the life out his small grocery shack.
"I had invested everything in those cattle. Most have died, the others are so skinny they're worthless," said Abdisalam, running his hand through a large sack of beans.
He, however, is among the more fortunate, with a small, albeit ailing, business to fall back on.
Dhobley was once a buzzing trading post, the entry point into Kenya, the region's biggest economy. Now the only people passing through are exhausted families trekking to the world's biggest refugee camp on the other side of the border.
Across Somalia, harvests have failed. Nearly all the food available in Dhobley's local stores is imported.
To bring it to Dhobley from the militant-controlled port of Kismayu, traders are forced to run a gauntlet of road-blocks at which "taxes" are frequently extorted.
Many opt to take long detours. The result is the same: higher prices.
Mako Mohamud brings in dried grass from the more fertile Juba valley to Dhobley.
"Al Shabaab stop us on the road and ask if the grass is to feed cattle in government held areas. I won't say it's for Dhobley. I'll say it's for Afmadow. That's not far from here but under their control," the 32-year-old mother said.
Few, however, can afford the fodder. At one of Dhobley's two boreholes, emaciated cattle, their skin hanging off jutting ribs, trip over the fresh carcass of a calf.
Dhobley lies just five km (three miles) from the porous border with Kenya. But it's one-way traffic across the frontier as tens of thousands of Somalis flee a famine that is tightening its grip on the south of their country.
The drought and famine have killed more than 29,000 children under the age of 5 in the last three months in southern Somalia alone, according to U.S. estimates.
In a dusty compound on Dhobley's outskirts, Habiba Mahad Adan swatted flies away from the sunken, cloudy eyes of her severely malnourished four-year-old son, too weak to cry for food.
"I've received nothing for my child," Aden said, contemplating the 100 km (60 miles) walk to Kenya's Dadaab refugee complex after already having trekked for three weeks through the scorched landscape.
Even in areas now held by Somali troops and government-friendly militia, the sands shift constantly, deterring aid groups from entering. What is more, the border with Kenya is officially closed, complicating the overland delivery of aid.
"We've made the place safe. We've been telling aid agencies that, but so far we've received no emergency intervention," Abdinassir Serar, a local elder, told a high-level delegation from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
While the humanitarian response to the famine in Somalia has focused on emergency food and shelter handouts, FAO has appealed for $70 million to help Somalis buy food, feed their livestock and stay in the country.
Cash in return for work as well as seeds for the next harvest, with rains anticipated in October, might hold back the tide of refugees and cut a growing dependency on aid.
"There is no alternative other than providing immediate cash relief to people and at the same time engage immediately to protect their resource base (livestock)," said Luca Alinovi, head of FAO's Somalia program, in a patch of scrub littered with rotting cattle carcasses.
Still waiting for cash commitments from donors, FAO says $70 million could provide seeds to 750,000 people ahead of the rains, help feed and vaccinate 42 million animals at risk of drought-related diseases and support almost 1 million people in return for work that might jump-start local economies.
"It's very clear, we need to move assistance across the border (into southern Somalia)," Cristina Amaral, FAO's head of emergency operations, told Reuters.
If they do not, then it's only time before shopkeeper Abdisalam and tens of thousands of others like him contemplate the walk across the border, perhaps never to return.
Editing by Giles Elgood