There is little in the world as tragic as the death of children. Death by starvation is long drawn out and painful. Mothers in Somalia who have walked with their children across arid, parched miles in search of food and water have had no recourse but to watch their once happy children grow weak, emaciated, then die. And as the children succumb, the remaining family, father, mother, sisters and brothers, must continue in search of hope for life.
As of this writing, 650,000 malnourished children feel the force of the drought and famine in Somalia. United Nations Humanitarian Officer Jens Laerke has said that tens of thousands of Somalis have already died and hundreds of thousands more are facing starvation. He said the term famine is a technical term for the worst possible situation of hunger, “Food, drinking water and special nutrition for children is on top of the requirements. But also medicines and health equipment are urgently needed.’”
United Nations Representative Augustine Mahiga and his team have made several trips to Mogadishu. He calls the conditions there “appalling,” and says, “It is truly heart wrenching to see the images of the starving children and their desperate parents unable to provide any food. Since January, nearly 4,000 acute watery diarrhea/cholera cases have been reported, but “this is the tip of the iceberg’.”
Habiba Osman Ibrahim, a 76-year old Somali refugee from the al-Shabab controlled Luk region of Somalia, said she walked for three days with her two underfed grandchildren. Operations by the United Nations and other groups are severely hampered by al-Shabab, a dangerous Somali militant group, which has for many years stopped aid to areas of Somalia under its control. There is now disagreement within the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Shabab militia; for a few days, relief for the starving people was allowed. But now, the relief is again disallowed.
Somalia is largely without formal government. The people are in an anarchic society, although recently, a transitional government has made some effort at organization. Al-Shabab, a terrorist group according to the U.S., is in opposition to any transitional government, and has as its goal the enforcement in Somalia of Islamic law.
An international press release from Nairobi on July 25th referred to an estimate of three and a half million displaced and starving people in need of aid in Somalia by December of this year. The release quotes Abdullahi Musse, a Somali worker for an international humanitarian organization, who has witnessed that, as drought, famine, and conflict conspire to worsen the crisis, the hope of delivering food has all but vanished. “At sea, ships carrying aid face the threat of piracy; on land [aid deliverers endure] armed robbery and kidnapping… Then, in the process of reaching our warehouses as well as on their way to the beneficiaries, 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.” In the past year, 20 workers, Somali and foreign, have been killed. 13 of these workers are kidnapped still, and being held for ransom.
Al-Shabab means “The Youth” in Arabic; many of the group’s members are themselves mere teenagers. They are the largest group of Islamic extremists fighting for control of Somalia. At one point these extremists were forced out of Somalia by Ethiopian troops. In debates in court, al-Shabab scored victories by seeking the protection of Sharia, Islamic law.
Al-Shabab is led by Muktar Ali Robow, also known as Abu Mansoor, previously was Deputy Defense Secretary of the Islamic Court Union (the transitional government) . At an earlier time, Al-Shabab was a wing of that government. It is believed that leaders of al-Shabab, including Adan Hashi Ayro, the group’s former military leader, and his patrons were trained in Afghanistan and followed the lines of the Taliban, as ruled in Kabul, until 2001.
The epicenter of the killing drought lies on the three-way border shared by Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, described as a nomadic region, where families depend heavily on the health of their livestock. Uganda and Djibouti have also been stricken.
An article in the Canadian press makes pertinent points. The United States and Canada have viewed the famine in Somalia, and many of the populace would expect intervention.
The issue is complicated by the likelihood of food and supplies, including much needed medical supplies, falling into the hands of the al-Qaeda associated al-Shabab. American and Canadian aid is reaching camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, but is blocked in central and southern Somalia by those militant forces. An incident well documented in Canada relates to the death of a Somali teenager, beaten to death by Canadian soldiers. In Canada the reference is to the “Somalia Affair.”
Common sense tells us if we are to prevent grains and foodstuffs from falling into the hands of al-Shabab, we may need to place armed soldiers on the ground in direct opposition to the Islamic extremists. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called upon leaders of al-Shabab to allow “unfettered assistance.” She also pointed out that any military intervention in the natural crisis could indeed hamper the work of aid organizations.