Somalia: Famine Looms As Aid Workers Flee

Nairobi — By December this year, aid agencies estimate that the number of displaced and hungry people in need of life-saving aid in Somalia will swell to 3.5 million-nearly half the country's population. Yet, as drought and conflict conspire to worsen the crisis, the humanitarian space to deliver food and other essential assistance in this conflict zone has all but vanished.

"At sea, ships carrying aid face the threat of piracy, on land (aid workers face) armed robbery and kidnapping," says Abdullahi Musse, a Somali worker for an international humanitarian organisation. "Then, in the process of reaching our warehouses as well as on their way to the beneficiaries, the trucks cannot move without security escorts and have to pass through countless checkpoints which cannot be crossed without paying a 'fee' to a variety of armed groups.

"It is a high-risk activity with minimal guarantees of security," says Musse.

Over the past few months, even this has become almost impossible to do. This year alone 20 aid workers, including foreigners, have been killed. Seventeen aid workers were freed after being kidnapped for ransom while 13 more are still in captivity.

All international aid workers and UN staff have been forced out by continuous fighting between Islamic insurgent groups and forces of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) backed by Ethiopian troops. Both sides accuse each other of attacks on aid workers and vow to protect them. Added to this are professional kidnapping rings, which have been encouraged by the large ransoms paid by foreigners to release ships taken by pirates.

The UN agencies and nine international organisations still maintain a presence in Mogadishu, but they rely exclusively on local staff. Musse told IPS over the phone from Mogadishu that Somali workers, too, are now being targeted and aid delivery has completely stalled.

There are 250 informal settlements of displaced people in Mogadishu and over 200 more along the road in Afogye. The UN says that as of June, 857,000 people had been displaced from Mogadishu and are reliant on international aid. Other agricultural regions in south-central Somalia, the main theatre of conflict, have been without rain this season and food shortage is acute.

"One of the reasons why many people had fled Mogadishu and set up camps in Afgoye (45 kilometres from the capital) was that it was more accessible for aid workers than the city itself," he says. "Many families split to get the aid they couldn't in Mogadishu. For the last two weeks people in the Afgoye corridor settlements have also been protesting in frustration over lack of aid delivery."

If sufficient food and other humanitarian assistance cannot be scaled up in the coming months, Oxfam International sees a severe famine in the making: "Should these conditions continue and aid agencies are not able to deliver adequate assistance, then the situation could tip over into famine in several regions of Somalia later in the year."

In his speech at the Security Council on July 23, the secretary-general's special representative for Somalia, Ahmed Ould-Abdalla, urged international naval escorts for WFP's aid-carrying ships and more security for aid workers.

"I sympathise with Somali nationals who constitute more than 95 percent of aid workers in south and central Somalia. They risk their lives daily and all too often have been the innocent victims of targeted killings," Abdalla told the Security Council Wednesday.

Political Impasse

Unfortunately, this sense of urgency in the humanitarian sector is not matched by developments on the political front. With the help of Ethiopian forces, the TFG controls a few towns in south-central region while an assortment of Islamic groups remain in ascendancy in most of the territory. (The Puntland and Somaliland regions in north and north-western Somalia claim autonomous status.)

The UN-brokered peace agreement in Djibouti between the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and leaders of the Union of Islamic Court has split the UIC. Radical Islamic factions reject the deal and increased attacks in south-central regions.

The Islamic courts are now divided into two main groups: the Djibouti group headed by Sheikh Sharif and signatory to the peace deal with TFG, and the Asmara group based in Eritrea and led by Hasan Dahir Aweys, an Afghan war veteran who is now wanted by the United States on terrorism charges for his alleged links with al-Qaeda.

"It is difficult to say how much control these two have over Al-Shabab, a group which is also on the U.S. terror list, and other insurgent groups of 'mujaheddin' (holy warriors) that have waged a war to throw out the Ethiopian forces from Somalia," says Bashir Awale, a radio journalist based in Mogadishu. Bashir says many previously unknown groups with Islamic names have recently issued threats against humanitarian workers. "But the TFG forces are equally culpable of deterring aid," says Bashir who points to the fact that there are four TFG checkpoints within a few kilometres drive to from Mogadishu to Afgoye and dozens more within the city.

Given the volatile and complex nature of the conflict, the UN special representative is seeking an international peacekeeping force to stabilise the country and provide cover to humanitarian operations. Ould-Abdalla believes that in "the current favourable political context following the Djibouti Agreement, it is time for the Security Council to take bold, decisive and fast action."

However, when asked if the United States would lead a coalition of countries into Somalia to implement the peace deal, US Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad said: "Well, you know that we are quite busy as you know, number one. Number two, that there are always issues with the U.S. leading a coalition "

Blaming al-Qaeda related groups for the attacks on humanitarian workers, Khalilzad did not agree to prompt Security Council action. He said no plan for a peacekeeping force will be discussed before August 15, when the Security Council Secretariat is expected to present a future plan for Somalia. A peacekeeping force with a strong mandate could take months.

"Somalia remains the most dangerous place in the world for aid workers," says Abdullahi Musse, "and yet its people are most desperate for humanitarian assistance. Resolving this dilemma requires impartial and immediate international intervention and it is needed today."

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