Somalia worst humanitarian crisis in Africa, UN says

Posted in Africa | 20-Nov-07 | Author: Jeffrey Gettleman| Source: International Herald Tribune

A Somali woman was carried in a wheelbarrow as she fled fighting in Mogadishu, Somalia, a few weeks ago.

AFGOOYE, Somalia: The worst humanitarian crisis in Africa, several United Nations officials said, may not be unfolding in Darfur, but here, along a 20-mile strip of busted-up asphalt.

A year ago, the road between the market town of Afgooye and the capital of Mogadishu was just another typical Somali byway, lined with overgrown cactuses and the occasional bullet-riddled building. Now it is a corridor teeming with misery, with 200,000 recently displaced people crammed into swelling camps that are rapidly running out of food.

Natheefa Ali, who trudged up this road a week ago to escape the blood bath that Mogadishu has turned into, said Monday that her 10-month-old baby was so malnourished she can't swallow.

"Look," Natheefa said, pointing to her daughter's splotchy legs, "her skin is falling off, too."

United Nations officials said that Somalia has higher malnutrition rates, more current bloodshed and many fewer aid workers than Darfur, which is often publicized as the world's most pressing humanitarian crisis and has taken clear priority in terms of getting United Nations-backed peacekeepers.

The relentless urban combat in Mogadishu, between an unpopular transitional government — installed partially with American help — and a determined Islamist insurgency, has driven waves of desperate people up the Afgooye road, where more than 70 camps of twigs and plastic have popped up seemingly overnight.

The people here are hungry, exposed, sick and dying. And the few aid organizations willing to brave a lawless, notoriously dangerous environment cannot keep up with their needs, like providing milk to the thousands of babies with fading heartbeats and bulging eyes.

United Nations officials working on Somalia are trying to draw more attention to the country's plight, which they feel has fallen into Darfur's shadow. They have recently organized several trips, including one on Monday, for journalists to see for themselves.

"The situation in Somalia is the worst on the continent," said Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the top United Nations official for Somalia.

"Many of these kids are going to die," said Eric Laroche, the head of United Nations humanitarian operations in Somalia. "We don't have the capacity to reach them."

He added: "If this were happening in Darfur, there would be a big fuss. But Somalia has been a forgotten emergency for years."

That emergency has included floods, droughts and locusts, as well as suicide and roadside bombs, and near-daily assassinations.

United Nations officials say the recent round of plagues, natural and man-made, coupled with the residual chaos that has consumed Somalia for more than a decade, have put the country on the brink of a famine. In the worst hit areas, like Afgooye, recent surveys indicate the malnutrition rate is 19 percent, compared with about 13 percent in Darfur, with 15 percent being the emergency threshold.

But unlike Darfur, where the suffering is eased by a billion-dollar aid operation and more than 10,000 aid workers, Somalia is still considered mostly a no-go zone. Just last week, two people were shot to death at an aid distribution center in Afgooye. United Nations officials estimate that total emergency aid is less than $200 million, partly because it is so difficult just getting food into the country.

Pirates lurking off the coast of Somalia have attacked more than 20 ships this year, including two carrying United Nations food. The militias that rule the streets — typically teenage gunmen in wraparound shades and flip-flops — have jacked up roadblock taxes to $400 per truck. To make matters worse, the transitional government last month jailed a senior official of the United Nations food program in Somalia, accusing him of being a terrorist, though he was eventually released.

United Nations officials now concede that the country was in better shape during the brief reign of Somalia's Islamist movement last year. "It was more peaceful," Laroche said. "And much easier for us to work. The Islamists didn't cause us any problems."

Ould-Abdallah called those six months, which were essentially the only epoch of peace most Somalis have tasted for years, Somalia's "golden era."

Somalia's ills have always come in waves, starting in 1991 when clan-based militias overthrew the central government and the country plunged into anarchy. That fighting, like the fighting today, disrupted markets, kept out aid shipments and led to rapid inflation of food prices. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people starved.

The United States tried to come to the rescue in 1992 and sent thousands of soldiers to Somalia to assist with humanitarian operations.