Images of children in their mothers’ arms with eyes covered with flies…babies trying to take milk from their mother's shrivelled breast…or staring into a faceless camera… A woman rocking her infant who is too dehydrated or undernourished to even blink an eye …
This landscape of death is Somalia, a country with no working economy, no police force, no government (since 1991). For centuries nomads wandered this unforgiving desert in search of food and water. Akin in language and religion, these people ought to live in unity, without the tribal strife that tore apart other African countries. But limited natural resources and internal disputes have historically undermined the stability of Somalia, and the Somali clans who have regularly battled one another into a state of anarchy. The harrowing faces of starvation, the inert shapes of death: these are the images that once again remind the world of the plight of Somalis.
BACKGROUND TO THE CRISIS
Colonialism came to Somalia in the late nineteenth century, when Britain took the northern third and Italy the South.[i] Eventually, the Republic of Somalia was formed by the unification of the British Somali Land and Protectorate, and the United Nations Trust Territory of Somalia in July, 1960. President Mohammed Siad Barre seized power in October, 1969, when the Constitution was suspended and the previous multiparty system abolished. He moved swiftly to install a Marxist doctrine called scientific socialism. But Siad Barre's regime began to crumble. His massacres of rival clans and politicians became too blatant to ignore. By 1990, the ruler was a sick octogenarian with the utmost desire of staying in power by manipulating rival clans. After three years of civil war that killed thousands of civilians, demolished most of the country, and caused thousands of persons to seek refuge over neighbouring borders, Siad Barre finally fled the capital, Mogadishu, in January 1991. Since 1991, no central government has controlled the entirety of the country, despite several attempts to establish a unified central government.
Somalia has experienced dictatorship, civil war, famine, droughts, floods, a tsunami and a brutal Ethiopian invasion. Furthermore, from 2006, the country has faced an insurgency led by Al Shabab, one of Africa's most radical Islamist groups. This group controls much of southern Somalia and has claimed affiliation with Al Qaeda since 2007. Additionally, in 2011, the country was hard hit by a famine which extended across much of East Africa. United Nations officials estimate that tens of thousands of Somalis have died, and that more than half a million children were on the brink of starvation. According to the New York Times, Al Shabab is to blame for much of the suffering, the group blocked international relief to famine victims. Presently, aid groups hope that with the consent of the Shabab group to allow them limited access to more parts of Mogadishu, famine victims can get the much needed help. But the Shabab still controls large parts of southern Somalia and it is not clear when the aid groups will be able to get into those areas. Tens of thousands, possibly even hundreds of thousands have fled to Kenya and Ethiopia seeking refuge.
The United Nations has been providing humanitarian aid intermittently with the assistance of the International Committee of Red Cross and non-governmental agencies since the early 1990’s. The situation in Somalia continues to deteriorate despite their efforts. In large part, the refusal of many Somali de facto authorities to allow the deployment of United Nations troops to secure delivery of aid in areas of dire need have further exacerbated the situation. In many instances, aid workers were fired upon and their vehicles stolen, relief ships were prevented from docking and in other instances some of the cash was extorted from donor agencies. The result was that the relief supplies were not reaching those in need. With the present heart rendering pictures of starving Somalis via the media concerns have been expressed about a humanitarian crisis of immeasurable proportion. The United Nations once again is facilitating with other humanitarian agencies in the provision of humanitarian assistance and securing a safe environment for the Somali people. Antonio Guterres, the head of UNHCR appealed to the world to supply the "massive support" needed by thousands of refugees.[ii]
In an article via the Associated Press, the U.N.'s World Food Program acknowledged it has been investigating food theft in Somalia for the last two months.[iii] Currently, it is estimated that more than 3.2 million Somalis which almost half of the population is in need of food aid. Somalis desperate for food are also overrunning Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp in neighboring Kenya, which is seeing some 10,000 new arrivals each week, six times the average at this time last year. International officials have long expected some of the food aid pouring into Somalia to go missing. But the situation raises questions about the competency of these aid agencies to reach the starving and also assist the Somali government to fight corruption, and whether diverted aid is fueling Somalia's 20-year-civil war. However, the reality facing these agencies is that it is imperative to the operation that there are both clearly definitive short and long term goals. When mandates have been unclear or when necessary political and material support has been lacking, these operations have found themselves hamstrung. With the United States pledging an estimated $68 million to aid the refugees in Somalia, more financial assistance of this magnitude is required. Over the last two decades, this situation has slowly grown and Somalia’s plight can only be kept alive through the media.
[i] Sophfronia Scott Gregory, “How Somalia Crumbled?,” Time International 24 (December14, 1993): 26.
[ii] United Nations World Food Programme, “UNHCR and WFP appeal for help for Africa’s refugees,” September 14, http://www.wfp.org/news/news-release/unhcr-and-wfp-appeal-help-africas-refugees.
[iii] John Helprin, “UN Aid will stay go to Somalia despite fraud,” Associated Press, August 16, 2011.