Reyna with the kids in Fiamah, Monrovia, Liberia

Friday, January 20, 2012

Does the world care about Somalia??

Does the world care about Somalia? I am not sure the world knows the truth about Somalia, which makes it hard to care. A better question might be, Does the humanitarian aid community, the ones that we believe can actually do something, care about Somalia? The answer is complicated. There are those who do, and those who don't. For those who do, care is complicated immensely by the large presence of Al-Shabaab, a Muslim extremist group that puts its ideals before its people, and therefore makes it extremely frustrating and dangerous, if not impossible, to offer aid inside the country.

Six months ago, in July of 2011, famine was declared in many parts of Somalia, specifically the southern part of the country, and several of the regions around it, including parts of Kenya and Ethiopia. At that time, almost 3 million people in Somalia alone were at risk of starvation. Around 30,000 people had already died. While the famine itself is a huge tragedy, reminiscent of the 1984 Ethiopian famine that saw almost half a  million people succumb to starvation, it was made worse by the fact that there were indications and forebodings of this famine a year in advance that were seemingly ignored by the aid organizations that are active in Somalia and the major donor governments that fund them. There is a mechanism in place in East Africa called the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, or FEWSNET, that uses satellite and remote sensors to track rainfall and vegetation and make predictions about harvests and food security. Predictions were made and alarms sounded when the rains failed in August of 2010, then again in October of that year,  and then yet again in the spring of 2011. East Africa entered into its worst drought in 60 years. Yet the aid world was not paying close enough attention. Even the UN had announced in August 2010 that the rate of malnutrition in Somalia was rising, and was at that point above the threshold that would prompt an emergency response. There was no emergency response at that time, though, and the rates continued to rise until an astounding 36% of the population was suffering from malnutrition in August of 2011.

To be fair, the prospect of intervention in Somalia, whether humanitarian or military,  is not appealing to anyone. The country is the definition of a failed state. Since 1991, when its dictator of  23 years, Siad Barre, was ousted from power, the country has essentially existed with no strong central government.  In the north, Somaliland declared itself independent after the 1991 overthrow, and the region of Puntland declared itself an autonomous Somali state in 1998. In the central and southern parts of the country, warlords and clan leaders have governed, or to use a more appropriate phrase, terrorized , their various regions.The country is awash with weapons, generously supplied by both the United States and the Soviet Union in their bids for the allegiance of the Horn of Africa during the Cold War, and by Ethiopia, in support of the rebels who overthrew Siad Barre. At the main market in the capital of Mogadishu, there are weapons available for purchase in open-air stalls.

Most Americans know Somalia as a place where our troops were embarrassed in the debacle known as Blackhawk Down in 1993, when two American helicopters were gunned down and 18 US Marines were killed. What most people do not know about that fateful day is that around 1,000 Somali civilians were killed by helicopters who came to try to rescue the downed Marines and sprayed gunfire on the crowds gathered. Ironically, Blackhawk Down was part of a larger operation entitled Operation Restore Hope, which the US had entered into with the UN to try to restore order to Somalia and alleviate the suffering from yet another famine at that time. After that international and infamous failure of US troops, the United States
decided on a much different approach to violent conflicts in Africa, summed up by Bill Clinton's nicely coined line"African solutions to African problems."  Journalist Richard Dowden writes that the memory of Somalia made America allergic to intervention in Africa. This has, at times, been a good thing, but also at times this stance has been deadly, as in 1994 in Rwanda when the US pressured the UN not to increase its' involvement or mandate. After Blackhawk Down, Somalia was largely left to flounder for the next fifteen years.

A weak state is prime breeding ground for extremist elements to arise. This is precisely what has happened in Somalia over the last 5 years. Al-Shabaab arose as the youth wing of a now-defunct movement called the Islamic Courts. In the beginning, they enjoyed widespread support among the local people of the southern regions of Somalia they were based in because they provided stability. The people found religion, even if it was a more extreme brand of Islam than they were used to, to be the glue that united them to rise up and fight against the greedy warlords that had terrorized them for over a decade. When the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) was finally established in Mogadishu in 2006, propped up by Ethiopia and African Union troops and bankrolled by the United States, Al-Shabaab took them on as enemy number one. For the past five years, Al-Shabaab has been gaining strength in their battle against the TFG, establishing direct ties to al-Qaeda and other powerful and wealthy terrorist organizations. They have also been gaining control over most of the southern half of Somalia, and parts of Mogadishu, the capital. One of the ways that Al-Shabaab finances their exploits is to demand money from charities that want to operate and distribute aid to the southern region of Somalia. According to reports from the BBC, they have a humanitarian coordination office which charges a registration fee of anywhere from $4, 000 to $10,000 for any charity that wishes to set up shop in southern Somalia. They also charge project fees, so that they receive 20 % of the overall cost of projects such as digging a borehole for clean water or setting up a feeding center.

This way of doing business with Al-Shabaab ensures that almost no US aid organizations operate in Somalia. In 2008, the United States labeled Al-Shabaab a terrorist organization, which means that aiding or abetting it, even through humanitarian aid, is a serious crime. By early 2010, the US was withholding about $50 million dollars worth of aid from southern Somalia because it was Al-Shabaab territory. The US also required its aid workers that are present there to refuse to pay the tolls that Al-Shabaab asked for. This action had the desired effect of weakening Al-Shabaab since they were now receiving no benefit from the aid provided from Somalia's biggest and wealthiest donor. They withdrew from the capital of Mogadishu in August of 2011 and retreated back to the southern regions that they clearly hold control over. But the stringent policies of the US might also have unwittingly had a hand in making this famine that has taken hold of  East Africa far worse in these same regions. The areas that are hardest hit by the famine and where the most people are at risk of starvation are the areas of Somalia that are controlled by Al-Shabaab.

It is clearly a no-win situation for the United States and many other countries and aid organizations in providing humanitarian aid. If they do acquiesce to Al-Shabaab's demands, much of the aid provided will inevitably be siphoned off by the group and used to finance its terror. If they do not provide aid, thousands more people will die before the famine lets up. At this moment, many aid organizations are not being given the chance. When the famine was at its peak in July and August of 2011, Al-Shabaab lifted its own restrictions on international aid agencies that it imposed because it felt they were bringing in Western ideas and religion. But as the drought has let up and the famine has decreased in severity, they are again making it very difficult for aid organizations to reach people . In November,Al-Shabaab shut down the offices of UNICEF and Concern as well as 14 other international charities.The group said that the agencies were exaggerating the scope of the problem in Somalia just to raise money.   In the first few weeks of 2012, the International Red Cross suspended its aid operations to the worst hit areas of southern Somalia because its convoys were being blocked. Medecins sans Frontieres, or MSF, closed down two of its clinics in Mogadishu because they said it had become too dangerous for them to be effective. It is estimated that there are still a quarter of a million Somalis that are on the brink of starvation, and there are now only a handful of aid organizations able to gain any access to the southern regions of the country held by Al-Shabaab.

Some of the reports that you hear of aid organizations' work in Somalia is deceiving because they are describing the work they do in the whole country. There is hardly any effectiveness now in the areas that need it most. In that sense, Al-Shabaab may be weakening itself further, because if they limit aid , they also cut off one of their sources of financing. There are signs of weakening, as Kenyan forces and African Union forces are pursuing Al-Shabaab now, becoming braver and branching out from Mogadishu and penetrating further into the south from both sides. With more military intervention, though, comes the possibility of just another form of terror for the ordinary Somali civilians who have learned that it's not safe to trust anyone who claims to be acting in their interests. There is an African proverb that says when elephants fight, the grass suffers. In this story, the Somalian people are the grass, their very survival being trampled on by groups wanting to either display their military prowess or to spread their religious beliefs.

Millions of  Somalis since last summer have fled from the south to Mogadishu so  that they could receive help.Food, water, and survival is their main concern.  In the course of the exodus, many families have buried loved ones along the way. Grieving loss even as they are moving forward towards hope. Or hope as they know it. One wonders what it will take for these families, humans, Somalis, to find rest.

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