(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Emergency aid funding fell in 2017, even as Syria/Yemen wars drove needs higher

    The numbers are in: 2017 was another costly year for humanitarian aid donors, but despite huge needs in Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, and elsewhere, funding levels have stagnated.


    In 2017, preliminary UN figures show a drop in relief funding of $1.56 billion, or seven percent, against 2016, despite rising needs. Funding levels continue to be heavily reliant on the United States and the European Union, while an inner circle of 13 aid agencies commands two thirds of spending.


    Confirmed 2017 funding reported to the UN’s Financial Tracking Service (FTS) was $21.3 billion, down from $22.9 billion in 2016. The data could still be adjusted with edits and additions, for example when amounts are moved from a status of “pledged” to “paid”. Donors and recipients report voluntarily to the system on a rolling basis. However, the decline shown in 2017 is in the context of a 19 percent increase in needs, according to the total price tag for the UN-managed response plans – reflecting increasing levels of need that donors didn’t keep pace with.


    FTS is the most complete source of information on international humanitarian funding, and major donor governments submit their data to it. However it does not include the full extent of international relief spending.


    For example, at least $5 billion of annual donations from private individuals to NGOs are not listed in the database. Médecins Sans Frontières alone reported spending of €1.4 billion in 2016, funded almost entirely from individuals.


    An annual review of humanitarian financing is produced by the consultancy Development Initiatives. The Global Humanitarian Assistance report, expected in June, triangulates FTS with other data sources to provide a fuller picture.


    Who spends where?


    The pool of official donors is dominated by a small group: the 15 largest donors gave 86 percent of the money. Repeating the pattern in 2016, the largest donors are the United States, the European Union, Germany, and the UK. Despite fears for the aid budget under Donald Trump’s presidency, levels of US emergency funding have yet to show any significant changes.


    Over half of all funding goes to the following largest crises: Yemen, Syria (and its neighbours), South Sudan, Iraq, and Somalia. This interactive graphic allows you to see where donors focus their energies – some spread even their modest budget across a wide range of locations -- others are more selective.


    Pick a donor and see where the funding flows.


    (IRIN built this 2017 dataset of donor-recipient pairings of more than $500,000 used here via the FTS API. It excludes donations for centralised, pooled, or multicountry purposes that couldn’t be mapped. However, to avoid missing a large tranche, funding for Syrian refugee operations is marked as directed to Syria.)


    Fair shares


    The United States pays about 30 percent of the total, but is the world’s largest economy paying an unfair amount? It depends how you look at it.


    Rich countries have long been urged to spend 0.7 percent of their national income on development aid. However, they currently give about 0.32 percent. Emergency (or humanitarian) funding is only a portion of that, and there is no agreed target.


    The donor countries who are the most generous with emergency aid spending are those who give the highest portion of their national income to humanitarian aid. The United States gives only 0.04 percent of its national income to humanitarian funding, placing it 16th in 2017.


    IRIN calculates that the highest percentage was 0.12 percent, from Denmark. So the United States is not contributing beyond its means, at least compared to other major donors.


    However, it could be argued that other large economies are not pulling their weight. The world’s second-largest economy, China, contributes very little to the conventional humanitarian aid apparatus.


    And if, for example, Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, were to spread its income over the course of a year, we calculate that only 52 minutes’ worth would go towards financing emergency relief.



    Who spends it?


    The UN agencies have long dominated the finances of humanitarian aid, and last year they commanded 59 percent of the funding. The World Food Programme is the undisputed giant: the Rome-based UN agency took in $5.7 billion, more than twice the amount of second-placed UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency (WFP’s figures are not all cash – its turnover is boosted by the value of food commodities received and distributed).


    As described in a related IRIN analysis, “The Humanitarian Economy”, a remarkably small group of aid agencies dominates the “market” – forming what some have called an oligopoly. In 2017, 13 big UN agencies and larger NGOs controlled two thirds of the funding. The largest non-Western, non-UN agency is the national branch of the Red Crescent of the United Arab Emirates.

    A package of emergency aid reforms agreed at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, the Grand Bargain, commits major donors and field-based aid agencies to reduce overheads, streamline administrative costs, support local aid groups, and shift more spending to cash.


    Whether or not the reforms are being implemented, the Grand Bargain now represents the consensus: 88 percent of all emergency aid reported to the UN comes from donors that have signed up to it. Many of the biggest aid agencies that receive donor funding have also signed up, and IRIN‘s analysis shows they get 70 percent of the funds. The Grand Bargain signatories on both sides of the table therefore represent the core humanitarian players. A progress report is due next month on the sidelines of the UN’s humanitarian meetings on how far they have actually stuck to their commitments.


    The club of the major donors, the OECD, also released its figures recently. These capture all international aid (developmental and emergency-related) from major economies, under an extensive set of definitions that are regularly tweaked. For 2017, they also report a total aid spend of $146 billion (a small dip on 2016). Updated 16 May: The proportion of that which went on strictly humanitarian or emergency work is 10.5%. Some spending by rich countries on receiving refugees is also down, compared to 2016, according to the OECD figures. The rules for defining what should be allowed as domestic refugee aid spending were a subject of lengthy negotiations last year, as reported by IRIN.




    Despite calls to reform and “localise” the response to humanitarian crises, two thirds of the money went to just 13 major groups
    Emergency aid funding fell in 2017, even as Syria/Yemen wars drove needs higher
  • Somalia’s climate change refugees

    Displaced by drought and conflict, rural Somalis have been heading to Mogadishu in their tens of thousands. They get no safety or support and are increasingly targeted for forced evictions, but they are still coming.


    After yet another bad rainy season at the end of last year, Amina Muse abandoned her four-hectare farm in Qorylooley, a small village in southern Somalia.


    For Muse, no harvest meant no business, and no business meant she would struggle to buy food or other essentials until the next rainy season in three months’ time – if those rains came at all.


    Uncertain what to do, Muse called friend and former neighbour Faduma, who had left Qorylooley in 2013 when fighting erupted nearby between al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab militants and government forces.


    Faduma made her way to the capital, Mogadishu, finding refuge in a settlement for displaced people in the heart of the city. Muse asked her how life was now. Faduma told her she was barely surviving, reliant on the goodwill of neighbours and occasional odd jobs, washing clothes and selling any goods she could find.


    Muse considered those bleak prospects then looked at her land. “I didn’t think I had a choice,” she told IRIN. “My only option was to move to Mogadishu.”


    “The leveller”

    The decade-old conflict between al-Shabab and the government has driven hundreds of thousands of Somalis from their homes.


    But even as the scale of violence-related displacement has dipped in recent years, the impact of food shortages as a result of climate-related shocks – from drought to floods – means the level of disaster-affected displacement has risen steeply over the same period.


    One million Somalis were displaced by drought and conflict last year, according to OCHA, the UN office that coordinates humanitarian aid.

    The rains in Somalia have underperformed for four successive seasons and today everyone – from farmers in the previously fertile south to pastoralists herding camel further north – has felt the impact.


    Smallholder farmers are producing smaller harvests; water points have become scarce; and large numbers of livestock have died in a drought Somalis now refer to as “the leveller” due to its far-reaching effects.


    Their livelihoods withering away in front of them, many rural Somalis have few options but to migrate to the large towns in the hope of finding new sources of income.


    In a recent technical study, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization noted that 2.7 million Somalis are still in urgent need of emergency assistance.


    It could have been far worse. Somalia was one of four countries where famine was feared in 2017. Aid was dramatically scaled up and, as a result, food security has markedly improved, according to the FAO report.


    But Mogadishu has seen a surge in internally displaced people (IDPs) escaping the drought and violence in the countryside who now squat in makeshift camps on increasingly valuable private land. The response from the authorities has been to clear them.


    Christina Goldbaum/IRIN
    Amina Muse in the home she shares with her friend, Faduma, in Mogadishu

    Growing friction

    On the 29th and the 30th of December last year, 21 IDP settlements were destroyed on the outskirts of Mogadishu. Witnesses described bulldozers and vehicles arriving early on the morning of the 29th, demolishing homes and schools, and forcing more than 5,000 families to flee for settlements further from the city.


    “The evictions were done with no prior consultations, and numerous requests by the community for time to collect their belongings and to safely vacate were not granted,” noted the Somali NGO Consortium.


    Many of those displaced were forced to move into areas where al-Shabab maintains a presence, making access by aid organisations more difficult.


    According to the Norwegian Refugee Council’s “eviction tracker”, some 11,000 IDPs are evicted on a monthly basis in Mogadishu, with a total of 153,682 people made homeless in 2017.


    Land values have increased significantly as both relative stability and business opportunity return to Mogadishu. Displaced people – some squatting in what were once abandoned districts but are now some of the most desirable real estate and commercial locations – find themselves extremely vulnerable.


    “Land is a contentious issue here and always has been,” Justin Brady, the head of OCHA in Somalia, told IRIN. “The idea that we will get prime land in the middle of the city that internally displaced people can live on is unrealistic, and the fact that they are getting pushed further and further outside the city is concerning.”


    The war’s environmental impact

    The “prime land” Brady describes is exactly where Muse now lives. Overlooking the rusted tin roofs, dust-laden tarps, and dilapidated shanty homes is the exclusive neighbourhood known as Villa Somalia, where the president and other influential members of the government reside. 



    Decades ago, those buildings were also home to some of the greatest environmental protection efforts in East Africa.


    From 1961 to the outbreak of civil war in 1991, the one-party government of dictator Siad Barre established the National Range Agency and expanded the Ministry of Agriculture, which developed policies to protect pastures from overgrazing, banned charcoal exports to preserve forests, and established a national environmental day (celebrated not once, but three times a year). 


    With the outbreak of civil war and the collapse of the federal government in 1991, these programmes disintegrated.


    This decline of good environmental governance, combined with the changing climate over the years, has placed pastoralism and farming – the economic and social backbone of the country – under threat. Lush grassland has become desert; increasingly unpredictable rainfall has led to more frequent and severe droughts.


    Climate change means more failing farms and more displacement as people like Muse are forced from their homes.

    “The Horn of Africa, Somalia in particular, is seeing the impacts of climate change, though it had no hand in contributing to global carbon emissions that are the cause of it,” said Brady. “It’s putting not just livelihoods but an identity of a people at risk.”


    Aid versus development


    The risks of getting it wrong in Somalia are well known. When an extreme drought struck the Horn of Africa region in 2011, Somali was worst hit. Between 2010 and 2012, the country suffered a famine and nearly 260,000 Somalis died, half of them children under five. An earlier 1994 famine in Somalia claimed an estimated 220,000 lives.


    Since the end of the 2011 drought, the UN has spent an estimated $4.5 billion on emergency relief efforts to avert another famine in Somalia. In January this year, the UN appealed for another $1.6 billion for drought relief efforts in 2018. 


    The severity of the recent droughts has meant the vast majority of donor funding has been funnelled into emergency relief rather than long-term development of water resources, environmental preservation, or diversifying livelihoods beyond traditional farming and livestock herding.


    As a result, though acute crises have been mitigated, the future of Somalis whose livelihoods are increasingly under threat remains uncertain.


    Experts say that responding to climate change means developing adaptation strategies – longer-term measures that help communities cope with the impact of a drying environment, rather than short-term humanitarian relief.


    “In the long run it’s very clear that we need to move in a different direction in terms of livestock management and agriculture,” Peter de Clercq, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Somalia, told IRIN. “It’s time for us to think strategically if we want to break the cycle of humanitarian crisis, at least the part of that we can influence.”



    TOP PHOTO: A young Somali girl walks through an IDP camp near the town of Beletweyne

    Forced off their land by drought, rural families face a precarious existence in Mogadishu
    Somalia’s climate change refugees
  • Drone strikes, diphtheria, and data: The Cheat Sheet

    Every week, IRIN’s team of specialist editors scans the humanitarian horizon to curate important sources on unfolding trends and events around the globe:

    A diphtheria dilemma?

    A global shortage of the antitoxin used to treat highly contagious diphtheria could trigger an ethical dilemma for health providers in Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugee camps. There were more than 2,400 suspected cases of diphtheria in Bangladesh as of 25 December — but only 5,000 vials of antitoxin available anywhere in the world, according to Médecins Sans Frontières. “There is not enough of the medication to treat all of the people in front of you who need it and we are forced to make extremely difficult decisions,” Crystal van Leeuwen, MSF’s emergency medical coordinator in Bangladesh, said on the aid group’s website. “It becomes an ethical and equity question.” Early cases of diphtheria were spotted in November but there were no available antitoxins in southern Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district, where nearly one million Rohingya refugees are now clustered together in haphazard camps and settlements. World Health Organization officials had to hand-carry the first available doses from Delhi in December. There are now about 1,300 vials of the diphtheria antitoxin available in Cox’s Bazar, according to the WHO. Fuelled by low vaccination rates, extreme overcrowding and poor sanitation, the sudden re-emergence of diphtheria in Bangladesh followed years of decline: there were only two reported cases in 2016.







    Diphtheria, long forgotten in many parts of the world, has also re-appeared in Yemen, which has seen more than 330 cases and 35 deaths in recent months.

    US drone strikes in Somalia double under Trump

    We reported on this topic in early November, but given Wednesday’s announcement that a fresh US drone strike has killed 13 al-Shabab militants, it’s worth revisiting. The latest hit, conducted northwest of Kismayo on 24 December, is, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the 34th this year, which compares to 15 for 2016 and 11 for 2015 and includes a strike on a militant training camp last month that killed 100 people. The increased rate of drone strikes is even more marked in Yemen, where US President Donald Trump has overseen a threefold increase from his predecessor, all in the name of the “war on terror”. Ironically, the latest strike in Somalia came as the Somali government officially took back control of its own airspace from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), 27 years after the fall of the central government in 1991. The move marks a symbolic milestone for the administration of President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo. Nine months into his tenure, in mid-October, Farmajo faced the deadliest attack in the country’s history, blamed on al-Shabab, that killed more than 500 people at a busy Mogadishu intersection. The African Union Mission in Somalia, AMISOM, meanwhile, has begun a gradual drawdown that will see the phasing out of the 22,000-strong multinational force by the end of 2020.

    E-book on climate change and food security reporting

    It’s not often we offer up an item of more than 100 pages compiled by IRIN itself. However, 2017 has seen Project Editor Anthony Morland edit an impressive body of work on one of the world’s most urgent issues, namely climate change adaptation – exploring what people are doing to reduce their vulnerability. The project provides a platform for policy discussion, and for the voices of those men and women on the front lines of climate change to be heard. The project covers four countries – Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, and Zimbabwe – with the goal of sharing lessons so that small-scale farmers everywhere can find support to alter methods of food production to suit climatic variation.


    It’s goggle time again

    No humanitarian data or innovation event is complete without photos of men in suits wearing virtual reality goggles, and sure enough the official opening of the Centre for Humanitarian Data in the Hague on 22 December did not disappoint. It was a relaunch of the existing UN OCHA initiative, enjoying financial support from The Netherlands. Snark aside, the service now claims over 900 sources. Its flagship site gathers and organises information from a range of sources, and continues to grow, offering everything from bilingual map data on Syria to one thousand rows of data on the displacement caused by the recent cyclone Tembin in the Philippines.


    And finally


    IRIN’s top articles and photos of 2017



    Drone strikes, diphtheria, and data
  • No quick fixes in ‘countering violent extremism’

    Since 9/11, Western countries have increasingly invested in programmes to prevent transnational jihadism. These include militarised measures but also “softer” civic interventions under the banner of ‘countering violent extremism’ (CVE).

    An example is funding social development programmes, implemented by civil society, with the aim of engaging and deterring individuals and communities from “radicalisation”.

    An effective response to Salafist violence, threats, and underlying ideologies, is extremely important. But in the Horn of Africa, CVE programmes have failed to adequately engage with the root causes of religious extremism.

    In some cases they have failed so miserably that we must ask: to what extent are they actually genuine efforts to address violence and militancy? Are they merely superficial gestures? And how did such a complex issue become the additional burden of NGOs already struggling with layers of political and legal restrictions and limited capacity?

    “The flame only burns those who touch it” is a Sudanese saying that resonates today. Religious militancy is not a new phenomenon in the Horn of Africa. People have lived through this fire for the past 30 years.

    In Somalia, thousands have been killed as a result of the brutal al-Shabaab insurgency, which has lured Muslim youth towards militancy by exploiting community vulnerabilities, including poverty.

    Dodgy allies

    In this region, religious militancy often disguises itself as an ideology for resistance against state corruption, ethnic and cultural biases. Meanwhile, counter-terror programmes often ally themselves with the same corrupt regimes.

    The West considers Sudan, for instance, a collaborative partner – though it is itself an incubator of religious militancy as a result of repressive policies and laws.

    Indeed, CVE programming has fallen far short of the mark – conceptually and in implementation. Even the language used is deeply problematic. Measures to prevent violent extremism is vague and ambiguous.

    CVE programmes are clearly supposed to be ‘soft power’ projects in parallel to military counter-terror interventions. But what exactly do they mean by “violent extremism”? Is extremism acceptable if it is not violent? At what measureable point does an ideology become ‘extreme’? What countermeasures are acceptable?

    And are these projects specifically focused on Islamic religious militancy, or violence based on other religions and ideologies as well?

    These programmes have also been overly simplistic, largely ignoring driving factors of militancy and violence including injustices inflicted upon the region’s population.

    The – largely flawed – operating assumption is that providing grants to NGOs to undertake development-style programming will lead to a shift in communities’ social identities, or erase those inequalities and injustices.

    Last year, the International Organisation for Migration launched a call for proposals on CVE stating that it intended to provide “small and quick impact support that capitalises on community-driven interventions aimed at mitigating risk factors that contribute towards violent extremism. These will be preceded by interactive and participatory community consultations.”

    But how can we think that transforming and influencing social and cultural identity can be accomplished through “small and quick impact support”?

    Since the First World War, British and French colonialists, and later the US government, helped cement political Islam as a buffer against the Soviet Union’s expansion and to counter socialism’s influence in their quest for the control of the Middle East’s oil and gas.

    Today states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran stress that Islam has only specific versions, of which they are the vanguards. Supposedly, Muslims all over the world must be either Shia like in Iran or Sunni Salafi like in Saudi Arabia.

    Islam’s reform heritage

    The Islamic faith also has a rich heritage of reform and transformative discourse. But, like other religions Islam is very diverse. Peoples’ experiences with it vary based on their specific historical and cultural contexts and perceptions.

    The Islamic faith also has a rich heritage of reform and transformative discourse, which can be used to facilitate persuasive transitions in communities using their own religious guidance.

    The Horn of Africa – which includes Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, Ethiopia and Djibouti – is close to the Arab Gulf region and thus it has been largely influenced by hardline Salafist ideology.

    Here, the challenging religious context is further compounded by the complexity of social identity. Universal citizenship is not affirmed or applied by all states, to the disadvantage of minorities. Often, ethnic and religious affiliations also shape identity – as well as access to resources and services.

    I recently heard the story of a donor-funded CVE project in the coastal areas of Kenya, which shows what’s at stake when NGOs, following donor agendas, forget that social and cultural change requires great effort, knowledge, and community ownership.

    This project had proposed removing all references to jihad in the Qur’an in Islamic religion classes for “Madrassa” children – provoking anger and revolt from the local community over the presumption that it could intervene in matters of religious identity like this, amending and censoring material.

    The wider struggle for democracy

    Pursuing social transformation requires focusing on, and investing in, civil movements from within. Years of experience challenging religious militancy and its impact on women has taught me that pursuing any form of social transformation requires focusing on, and investing in, civil movements from within.

    It is the role of people living in regions where militant Islam is rife to lead and decide on the best approach to countering it.

    Trying to address injustices suffered under militant Islamists requires meticulous and tireless work – but it is one of the most effective approaches.

    Women’s movements have also been negotiating and challenging discrimination within different sects of Islamic traditions, text and jurisprudence.

    Academic Amina Wadud has contributed to a feminist reading of Quranic text based on equality and justice which counter traditional and militant readings. Addressing religious militancy’s impacts and drivers is also a core priority of the SIHA Horn of Africa women’s network.

    This approach must be adopted by political parties too, and be connected to wider struggles for democracy, freedom of belief, equality and justice.

    Unfortunately, most CVE programmes and other counter terrorism strategies can only be characterised as pursuing ‘quick-fixes’ and short-sighted and short-term gains.

    Communities in the Horn of Africa must look inside rather than outside for solutions.

    Within civil society, we must tackle prohibitions and fear of debate and critical engagement with Islam. Internationally, we need a new agenda, centred on liberation, to support movements relevant to the communities most affected by violent extremism.


    (TOP PHOTO: Djiboutian soldiers destroy an al Shabaab flag after the town of Bula Burde was liberated by AMISOM forces on 16th March 2014, Credit: AU UN IST/Ilyas A. Abukar)

    This commentary first appeared on openDemocracy.

    No quick fixes in 'countering violent extremism'
    Islamic communities must lead and decide on the best ways to counter Salafi Jihadism, says Hala Alkarib
  • Ethnic violence displaces hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians

    Lifting her robe the young woman revealed undulating scar tissue blanketing her breasts, stomach, and extending up her neck and along her arms.

    “They poured petrol over me then lit it,” said 28-year-old Husaida Mohammed. “They were Somali boys.”

    When IRIN met Mohammed she was in a camp of about 3,500 displaced Oromo people on the outskirts of Harar, the ancient walled city in Ethiopia’s Harari Region.

    It had taken her over a month to make the 100-kilometre journey to safety from Jijiga, the capital of Ethiopia’s far eastern Somali Region. For weeks she lay hidden in an empty Oromo-owned house tended to by friends as she recovered from her injuries.

    Next to her in the large warehouse being used to shelter the displaced was a woman in a striking pink robe. She had no visible injuries but didn’t utter a word.

    “She was throttled so badly they damaged her vocal chords,” a doctor explained. “She can’t eat anything, only drink fluids.”

    Tit-for-tat ethnic violence in Ethiopia’s two largest regions of Oromia and Somali began in September and has forced hundreds of thousands from their homes. Local media have reported upwards of 200,000 displaced, humanitarian workers at the camps talk of 400,000. 


    The unrest began when two Oromo officials were reportedly killed on the border between the two territories, allegedly by Somali Region police. 

    On 12 September, protests by Oromo in the town of Aweday, between Harar and the city of Dire Dawa, led to rioting that left 18 dead. The majority were Somali khat traders, a mildly narcotic leaf widely chewed. Somalis who fled Aweday said the number of dead was closer to 40.

    In response to Aweday, the Somali Regional government began evicting Oromo from Jigjiga and the region. Officials say this was for the Oromo’s own safety, and that no Oromo died as a result of ethnic violence in the region – a claim disputed by those displaced.

    In addition to the camps around Harar and Dire Dawa – cities viewed as neutral safe havens – they have popped up elsewhere along the contentious regional border.

    In these camps Oromo and Somali tell equally convincing stories of ethnic violence. They accuse the regional special police – in the Somali Region known as the Liyu, and the Oromia version, referred to by Somalis as Liyu Hail – of being behind many of the attacks*.

    Both regional governments deny their police forces were involved.

    The federal government faces fierce accusations ranging from not doing enough, to deliberately turning a blind eye to the violence.

    The Oromo see this as punishment after their year of protests against the ruling party that led to a state of emergency.

    There has also been a legacy of distrust of the Somali Region in Addis Ababa. The perception is that among the population there is revanchist sympathy for the idea of a Greater Somalia.

    Another possibility is that the government simply has not had the capacity to effectively respond, so widespread has been the violence.

    Oromia and Somali share a 1,400-kilometre long border. The Oromo are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, numbering about 35 million, a factor Ethiopia’s other ethnic groups remain deeply conscious of – especially its 6.5 million Somalis.


    Ethiopia man burnt
    James Jeffrey/IRIN
    Victim of the violence

    History of strife and harmony

    Ethnic conflict along the common border and in the rural hinterland has long existed – with Oromo migration a particular source of friction.

    The ongoing drought, which has put pressure on pasture and resources, could be another.

    “As you move west of the regional border the land becomes higher with more water and pasture,” said the head of a humanitarian organisation who spoke on condition of anonymity over the sensitivity of the issues.

    “Where the regional border runs is very contentious – you’ll find different maps giving a different border,” he added.

    In 2004, a referendum to decide the fate of more than 420 kebeles around the border—Ethiopia’s smallest administrative unit—gave 80 percent of them to the Oromia Region. This led to thousands of Somalis leaving areas for fear of repercussions.*

    The referendum still hasn’t been fully resolved, which some say could be another factor behind the current conflict.

    At the same time, many of the displaced spoke of their shock at how the violence broke out in formerly close-knit communities that had integrated peacefully, often for centuries, and in which intermarriage between Oromo and Somali was the norm.

    Some of the history and scale of this violence can be found 80 kilometres east of Dire Dawa, just over the regional border in the Somali Region, where two giant camps for displaced Somalis are co-located in the lee of the Kolechi Mountains.

    In the older camp are 5,300 Somali households displaced by a mixture of drought and ethnic violence since 2015. In the newer camp are 3,850 households – roughly six to 10 people each – all made homeless by the recent trouble.

    One Somali man who arrived nine months ago, before the current surge of unrest, recounted his experience at the hands of Oromia’s Liyu Hail in Oromo’s Bale zone, hundreds of kilometres to the southwest.

    He said a violent mob of Oromo militia had come to his village so he and a group of about 40 men went to the regional police to request protection.

    “But the man in charge ordered his men to fire at us,” the Somali man said. “Everyone fell – I wasn’t hit but I was covered in so much blood from the others the police thought I was dead, and I escaped.”

    He claims 200 people in total were killed and 893 houses were burned: “Everything was looted, all livestock taken – it was unimaginable.”

    The people in both camps pull back clothing to reveal old bullet wounds, scars, and lesions from burns, and broken bones that never healed.

    A number of displaced Somalis say they survived thanks to the intervention of soldiers from the Ethiopian Defence Force during the recent violence. But it wasn’t enough to persuade them to remain, or to return.

    “If the federal government sends forces to keep the peace, they stay for a week or a month, and then after they leave it happens again,” said one Somali man. “We can’t risk staying.”

    What next?

    The violence has also crossed borders with reports of Oromo leaving ethnically Somali Djibouti and Somaliland, where two Ethiopians were reportedly killed in the capital, Hargeisa. It’s believed this could have been the revenge of relatives of some of the traders that died in Aweday.

    For the Oromo and Somali displaced from their homes, the next step is to find a long-term solution.

    But Ethiopia’s federal system devolves quite a bit of power to ethnic regional states. With sectarian anger still running high, this leaves the government in a quandary over how to respond to the crisis, some commentators have pointed out.

    “[Those displaced] could be integrated in the communities where they are now, resettled elsewhere, or returned to their original communities,” said one official in an international organisation who asked for anonymity.

    “The government [is] committed to everyone being able to return home, as is their constitutional right to live where they want, but for most [of them] we are not sure whether this is possible.”


    TOP PHOTO: This Oromo woman lost her husband during evictions from the Somali Region and has no idea of his condition or whereabouts

    * CORRECTION: This version of the story clarifies the use of the term Liyu Hail and adds a paragraph on the 2004 census

    Ethnic violence displaces hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians
  • US ramps up military strikes in Somalia

    When Ali Osman Diblawe arrived in Bariire he was barefoot and winded. He had sprinted the 2.5 kilometres from his farm to the southern Somali town after hearing a barrage of gunfire tear through his small village soon after the early morning prayer.

    That was on 25 August. In the days prior, he and at least two others on the farm had seen what they thought was an odd-looking black bird in the sky.

    “There was something small and dark that was flying high over the town in the morning when we went to our farms and in the evening when we came home,” Diblawe told IRIN over a phone. “It was far away, but I thought that’s a drone, that looks like a drone.”

    Anxious, he approached the local Somali National Army commander to voice his concerns over what he suspected was US surveillance of the village.

    He explained that although the farmers had small arms – as many do in rural Somalia, where there are ongoing clan conflicts – they were not members of the jihadist group al-Shabab. He returned to his village on 24 August hoping he had been listened to.

    The next morning the shooting started and Diblawe ran. When he plucked up the courage to return home he saw the bodies of 10 of his neighbours sprawled on the ground. Standing over them were the SNA soldiers who had killed them, and the handful of US Special Operators who had orchestrated the operation. Diblawe’s warning had fallen on deaf ears.

    Local media first misreported the incident as a US drone strike. They later clarified that the 10 people had been killed in a joint US-Somali ground operation – confirmed in a statement issued by the US Africa Command, known as AFRICOM.

    The raid came six months after President Donald Trump had loosened regulations restricting operations in Somalia, and five months after the first US soldier was killed in the country since the infamous Black Hawk Down incident in 1993.

    The Bariire raid exemplifies what has been a gradual ramping-up of US military activity in Somalia over the last three years, one in which drones – both armed and for surveillance – have played a central role.

    This includes the first air strike against so-called Islamic State in Somalia on 3 November.  According to an AFRICOM statement, the drone attack killed “several terrorists” near Qandala, a small port town in northeastern Puntland that IS briefly occupied late last year.

    “In 2011 there were four or five maybe six [air] strikes and US ground operations, and that trend continued up until 2015,” said Jack Serle, a specialist investigator with the Bureau for Investigative Journalism’s drone warfare team.

    “But in 2015 the pace of strikes really accelerated and we’re now tracking at least 20 airstrikes and ground operations this year, which is the highest we’ve ever recorded.”


    Somali soldier
    Christina Goldbaum/IRIN
    Somali soldier with Ugandan AMISOM troops

    Relaxed rules of engagement

    In March, the Trump administration designated parts of southern Somalia an “area of active hostilities”, a move which gives commanders in the field greater autonomy over the use of force.

    Prior to the policy change, US forces in Somalia had been operating under the more restrictive Barrack Obama-era guidelines known as the Presidential Policy Guidance.

    Implemented in May 2013 in an effort to reduce the number of civilian casualties in counter-terrorism operations, the guidelines require high-level deliberations among cabinet officials to confirm that targets outside of traditional war zones pose a threat to Americans, and that there is near certainty no civilians will be killed.

    The undoing of these regulations came after significant lobbying from the Pentagon and General Thomas Waldhauser, the AFRICOM commander.

    Yet in the initial three months after the new policy was implemented, there was no change in the number of strikes: there was one strike in April, one in May, and one in June.

    But then in July something changed: there were five strikes that month, four in August, and three in September, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

    “This pales in comparison to other countries where the US operates drones,” said Serle, noting that in Yemen there have been 115 confirmed air strikes this year alone. But, he added, in comparison to the last three years in Somalia, “this is unprecedented.”


    Who’s a terrorist?

    The marked increase in strikes and operations in recent years, combined with the Trump administration’s new operating regulations, and the incident in August, has caused concern in human rights circles.

    Researchers have repeatedly warned about the challenges of foreign militaries operating in a country where clan conflicts and small arms are prolific among civilian populations, like in Bariire.

    In these areas, where various clans have long feuded over land and water, farmers often carry guns to protect their farms against attacks from rival clan militias.

    A prolonged drought has also caused mass displacement, forcing these armed farmers and pastoralists to move into new areas when the land can no longer support them. Without accurate intelligence, this can look like a group of al-Shabab militants on the move.

    Though many claim that farmers who carry guns in al-Shabab controlled areas are in some form of alliance with the jihadists in order to keep their weapons, it’s incredibly difficult to discern whether this is true.

    It’s particularly hard when translators and intelligence officers providing foreign militaries with this information are themselves often involved – even peripherally – in these clan disputes. 

    “We have already started to see in certain circumstances a real risk that expanded operations are leading to increased civilian harm,” said Laetitia Bader, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch.

    “It could also be used or seen as an opportunity from a whole variety of actors to sow [dis]information and feed into increasingly tense localised conflicts,” she added.

    Such it seems was the case in Bariire, where it appears the US operated on misleading intelligence that Diblawe – and many others – suspect came from a rival clan in active conflict with the people in the village.

    In a press release after the operation, AFRICOM said it was aware of “civilian casualty allegations” and that it was “conducting an assessment into the situation to determine the facts on the ground.”

    More accidental deaths

    But Bariire isn’t the first US investigation into accidental casualties in Somalia. In September last year, a drone strike killed 22 soldiers from a regional militia the US had worked alongside near Galkayo, in Galmadug State, central Somalia.

    At the time, the Galmadug security minister told reporters that he suspected security personnel in a rival clan in neigbouring Puntland had deliberately misinformed US forces – telling them Galmadug’s soldiers were actually al-Shabab.

    In the immediate aftermath of the attack, AFRICOM claimed US forces had carried out a “self-defence strike”, which resulted in the death of nine al-Shabab militants. But as furious residents of Galkayo burned American flags in protest, AFRICOM said it would open an investigation into the allegations.

    “It’s essential that if operations that the US are unilaterally carrying out, or supporting the Somali armed forces to carry out, that when they go wrong, the US is promptly investigating civilian casualty allegations and publicly publishing the outcomes of these investigations,” said Bader.

    “When there are incidents of criminal wrongdoing and when these operations are found to be illegal, it’s key that individuals are being brought to justice.”

    In Bariire, Diblawe is still waiting to hear the results of the Pentagon’s latest investigation, which he hopes will bring justice over the deaths of his neighbours and friends.

    “We don’t believe the Americans have any agenda to kill us, they don’t have an agenda to support one clan against another,” he said. “But there are people who systematically brand us with the name ‘al-Shabab’ in order to get support in this clan conflict.”

    But before Diblawe gets answers, Somalis can expect more drone strikes. President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmaajo” and Somalia’s international partners are preparing for a much-anticipated large-scale offensive against al-Shabab in which the US, which has emerged as one of the government’s strongest allies, will most likely play a key role.


    TOP PHOTO: US MQ-9 Reaper drone

    Human rights groups concerned there will be a rise in civilian casualties
    US ramps up military strikes in Somalia
  • Shock and revulsion over Mogadishu bombing

    The bomb was as enormous as the flecks of torn skin smudging the ground are miniscule. Entire overcrowded buses were blown up, every passenger killed. No one in the vicinity was spared: shopkeepers at the side of the road selling khat; office managers; children fooling around or running errands for parents; a medical student about to graduate; mothers; fathers; sisters; brothers. 


    At approximately 3:30 on Saturday afternoon, a truck bomb was detonated in the middle of the traffic in Mogadishu's Hodan district, next to the landmark Safari hotel, frequented by politicians and other Somali movers and shakers.    


    Later in the day, a second explosion was reported in the city's Madina district.


    When the Hodan bomb went off, near the busy K5 roundabout, Somalis on social media reported it as the loudest explosion they'd ever heard – a feat in itself in a city that's been used to violence for more than two decades. 


    The bodycount started in the dozens, but soon started to climb, hitting 85, then more than 100. Now the death toll is officially up to 276 people.


    It is expected to reach more than 300, said Mohamed Moalim, permanent secretary in the government’s Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management. Hundreds more have been injured.


    "We still have a number of bodies not identified, hundreds of families wanting to identify loved ones, but it’s happening slowly because of the size of the situation,” he told IRIN via Skype. Many of the bodies are charred beyond recognition. 


    "When you see the area and location, you will [understand the extent of the damage]," said Farah Bashir, managing director of Galayr Consultancy, referring to the bustling commercial district, with many shops, hotels, and businesses.


    He wasn't at the office when the explosion happened, but he heard the blast and arrived to find complete destruction, with shattered buildings and people trapped under rubble.


    "The blood of the victims, burned pieces of human bodies,” said Bashir. “No doors, windows, curtains, walls – all [destoyed] and demolished.”


    The city’s two largest hospitals, Medina and Turkish-supported Digfer, are entirely overwhelmed. There aren't nearly enough doctors and nurses to tend to everyone. Medical students are volunteering, but supplies are low.


    "We need food, water, emergency equipment, beds, sheets, antibiotics," said Moalim. The UN and international NGOs are mobilising, but none were immediately on the ground, he noted.


    African Union troops, known as AMISOM, have been providing security and services in the clean-up, and the Turkish government is sending ambulance planes expected to land today.


    Hassan Istiila/IRIN
    Aftermath of the bombing


    Al-Shabab on the march?


    As of yet, no group has claimed responsibility for the bombing, but it bears all the hallmarks of the jihadist group al-Shabab, at war with successive governments and their international backers since 2006.


    They have staged repeated attacks in Mogadishu, but nothing close to the scale of Saturday’s carnage. Previously the worst attack was in June when 30 people died in the bombing of a popular pizza restaurant.


    “They won’t claim responsibility because of the massive civilian deaths, but this was definitely an al-Shabab operation,” said Rashid Abdi, Horn of Africa director at the International Crisis Group.


    “Why they’ve done it is because they had the opportunity to do it,” he told IRIN.


    The security forces have suffered a series of setbacks over the last few months. They have withdrawn from the key Lower Shabelle region as a result of al-Shabab attacks, and there are rising tensions and low morale within the fledgling Somali National Army.


    Last week, defense minister Abdirashid Abdullahi Mohamed and army chief General Mohamed Ahmed Jimale both submitted their resignations amid reports of rivalry between the two men.


    The Somali army is being retrained and built up so it can take over security once AMISOM troops start withdrawing next year, but reforms have been slow.


    The recent military setbacks have allowed al-Shabab “to gain a corridor to infiltrate Mogadishu,” said Abdi. “This is a serious lapse in security, or collusion.”


    The truck carrying the explosives was believed to have been waived through the numerous checkpoints along the Afgooye road into the city, although the government says it was being followed before it detonated.


    The attack has generated universal revulsion, with Mogadishu residents taking to the streets to demonstrate their outrage. Hundreds more have lined up to donate blood. 


    "I'm feeling very sad," said Bashir. "You can't identify and you can't know and you can't analyse the loss of [so many] innocent people who were just doing business around the area." 


    Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo has declared three days of mourning.


    The shock of Saturday’s attack has been likened to the impact of al-Shabab’s 2009 bombing of a medical school graduation that killed 19 people, which was widely condemned and hurt the group’s standing inside Somalia.


    “We’re beginning to see a groundswell of public resentment, but whether this will translate into support for the government is hard to tell,” said Abdi.


    Farmajo was elected in February by a landslide, but has struggled to bridge the deep divide between the central government and the six federal states over powers and authority, which is hobbling his administration.


    The divisions have been exacerbated by the Gulf crisis between the Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates-led coalition, versus a diplomatically isolated Qatar.


    Farmajo is seen to side with Qatar, while the cash-strapped Somali states have chosen Riyadh and Abu Dhabi – who are looking for bases in Somalia for their military intervention in neighbouring Yemen.


    Al-Shabab may have been trying to take advantage of the government’s weakness, but it is unclear how things will now play out. “This [attack] could throw the government a lifeline in terms of public support, but it could tip the other way if it’s mishandled,” said Abdi.



    Shock and revulsion over Mogadishu bombing
  • Six major humanitarian challenges confronting the UN General Assembly

    Hype over what President Donald Trump may or may not say dominated the media build-up to this week’s UN General Assembly. However, US funding cuts and the apparent absence of American authority on key global issues weigh more heavily over world leaders beset by a host of daunting humanitarian challenges.


    It’s the first UNGA since Trump was elected president. He’ll make his debut on Monday in hosting a meeting on UN reform, ahead of his maiden speech to the General Assembly on Tuesday. It’s also the first year at the helm for UN Secretary-General António Guterres. His speech opening high-level week on Tuesday will be closely watched, as will his handling of Trump’s US administration.


    The US decision on the eve of the General Assembly to halve its diplomatic presence in New York doesn’t augur well for those concerned that US cuts and retreats from international agreements are creating a dangerous vacuum at a time when the General Assembly has so many global crises to address.


    Here’s our guide to the major humanitarian issues:


    Climate Change


    The UNGA is always a vital forum for the world’s developing countries, particularly those facing down climate change. The new General Assembly president, Miroslav Lajcak of Slovenia, identified grappling with it a priority for the UN’s 72nd session. Catastrophic flooding in South Asia and two record-setting hurricanes that recently hit the Caribbean and the southern United States will lend added gravity to sessions this week.


    A high-level meeting convened by Lajcak and Guterres on Monday will focus on Hurricane Irma, which ploughed through the Caribbean and into Florida earlier this month. The UN’s regional response plan for the Caribbean calls for $27 million to help up to 265,000 people affected. For the first time in 300 years, no one is left living on Barbuda, according to Antigua and Barbuda’s ambassador to the US.


    Notably absent from the expected speakers list are any Americans. Trump this year announced he would pull the US out of the Paris climate agreement, angering world leaders and giving an opening to countries like China to take more of a lead on the issue. After word leaked that the US might be changing its position once more, the White House confirmed on the eve of the UNGA that it still plans to renege unless drastic changes are made. On Tuesday, heads of state will meet for a roundtable on climate change. By then, a new hurricane, Maria, will be running over some of the same Caribbean islands hit by Irma, possibly reaching Hispaniola by the end of the week. NGOs hope that attention will rub off on the sustainable development goals more broadly, with warnings that countries are falling behind.




    More than 20 million people in Somalia, Yemen, South Sudan, and northeastern Nigeria are still at risk of famine, and their lot will be the focus of aid agencies and diplomats. The UN’s just-released State of Food Security report warns that “the long-term declining trend in undernourishment seems to have come to a halt and may have reversed.”


    Shortfalls in funding persist across the board, and the aid community will be applying further pressure on donors to follow through on their promises. The week’s main event on famine response and prevention is on Thursday. It will provide an opportunity for some new faces – recently appointed World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley and Mark Lowcock, the new top UN relief official – to set out their stall.


    Yemen’s long humanitarian crisis, deepened by years of war, is now considered the world’s most dire: more than 20 million people are in need of assistance; seven million are severely food insecure; two million children are acutely malnourished; the worst cholera outbreak in memory has infected more than 660,000 people and claimed 2,100 lives. There’s no sign the warring parties are any closer to ending the civil war. On Monday, UN, EU and Gulf Cooperation Council representatives will host a closed-door donor coordination meeting; Friday will see a separate high-level humanitarian event organised by OCHA, Sweden and the Netherlands.


    South Sudan will be the focus of a separate high-level event on Thursday convened by the African Union and the eastern and central African bloc IGAD. In his speech opening the Human Rights Council this month in Geneva, High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein said South Sudan “is being quite simply destroyed”. One million refugees have fled to Uganda alone.


    Refugees and Migrants


    Last September, the General Assembly held a historic, high-level summit on refugees and migrants. The meeting's outcome, the New York Declaration, paved the way for two global compacts – one on refugees and another on migration – that member states are due to adopt in 2018. World leaders at last year's summit agreed to a number of commitments amidst a global surge in displacement, key among them increased international cooperation and responsibility-sharing. This week, member states will take stock after a year that saw anti-refugee sentiment go mainstream in the West. That starts on Monday, with a high-level follow-up meeting.


    EU agreements have seen the flow of people from the Mideast to Europe decrease. There is also concern over armed groups preventing the movement of refugees and migrants into Europe, particularly along the Libya route. Additional horror stories abound: off the coast of Yemen, a boat carrying Somali refugees was hit by an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition in March, killing at least 40, and more refugees have washed up on Yemen’s shore after being spilled into the sea by people traffickers. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar into Bangladesh present member states with as urgent a crisis as ever – if not one on Europe’s doorstep.


    On 27-28 September, the General Assembly will hold a separate high-level meeting on combating human trafficking. 


    Human rights and Myanmar


    This month, Guterres said Rohingya Muslims were experiencing “ethnic cleansing” in Myanmar. The country’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi has cancelled her inaugural trip to the UNGA, where she is still expected to face more scorn than any Nobel Peace Prize winner in history. After years of alarm bells ringing, the crisis has now escalated beyond most people’s worst fears, with 400,000 Rohingya having fled across the border to Bangladesh, many alleging grave human rights abuses at the hands of the Myanmar military. In a BBC interview ahead of the UNGA, Guterres said Aung San Suu Kyi had a last chance to end the offensive in a national address on Tuesday: "If she does not reverse the situation now, then I think the tragedy will be absolutely horrible, and unfortunately then I don't see how this can be reversed in the future."



    Meetings will also be held on the flouting of international law in Central African Republic, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, as well as sessions on lawless Libya and Somalia. On Thursday, a meeting will be held about supporting accountability and justice in Iraq as the war against so-called Islamic State winds down. Ahead of high-level week, the General Assembly voted to include the Responsibility to Protect doctrine and mass atrocity prevention as part of its formal agenda.


    International peace and security


    North Korea’s recent nuclear and missile tests are seen as the top priority for the reduced American contingent. Shrugging off Trump’s threat to respond with “fire and fury”, Kim Jong-un’s regime has conducted what is believed to be its largest nuclear test and fired two missiles over Japan.


    The Security Council has unanimously passed two resolutions sanctioning North Korea since Trump took office, but the US administration has indicated it could be prepared to take unilateral action.


    “I have no problem kicking it to [US Secretary of Defense] General [James] Mattis because I think he has plenty of options,” US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said on Friday. Lassina Zerbo, the executive secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, will brief the UNGA on the latest test on Thursday.




    In June, the General Assembly voted to decrease the overall peacekeeping budget by $600 million, assisted by several missions already in the process of shrinking or winding down. The US had shot for a $1 billion reduction, but ambassador Haley immediately took credit, saying in a statement: “Just five months into our time here, we’ve already been able to cut over half a billion dollars from the UN peacekeeping budget and we’re only getting started.” The US wants to review all missions. On Wednesday, a high-level meeting aims to have “frank discussions on the reform of UN Peacekeeping and push forward the implementation and follow-up of reforms for strengthening UN Peacekeeping.”


    The UN reportedly wants 750 additional troops to step into a “security vacuum” in Central African Republic. CAR has been the site of some of the worst allegations of sexual abuse perpetrated by UN and foreign peacekeeping forces. On Thursday, diplomats meet to discuss Mali, where the UN’s deadliest mission is located (two more peacekeepers were killed earlier this month). That same day, the AU and IGAD will meet for the high-level event on South Sudan, where more than 210,000 South Sudanese are still sheltering with the UN.



    Six major humanitarian challenges confronting the UN General Assembly
  • Somalia’s impossible fight against cholera

    Ahmed Hussein’s perfectly white teeth seem too big for his mouth; his upper arms look like they belong to a little boy, not a 23-year-old man.

    Propped up on an iron bed, Hussein laughs and says he always was slim. But he is clearly malnourished. Hussein arrived at Mogadishu’s Bandir Hospital a day earlier with his mother and two sisters, all suffering from acute watery diarrhoea: a tell-tale sign of cholera. A nurse at the hospital told IRIN she believed the whole family got sick from the same water source. 

    This is Somalia’s worst cholera outbreak in five years. So far, 71,663 cases have been counted, including more than 1,098 deaths, according to Doctor Ghulam Popal, the World Health Organization representative. In July, when Hussein was admitted, 5,840 cases of acute watery diarrhoea were reported at Bandir Hospital alone.

    Cholera is an acute disease that can kill within hours if left untreated. Waterborne, it thrives in unsanitary conditions.

    After nearly three decades of continuous conflict, Somalia has a barely existent government with no public health system and 800,000 people driven into unsanitary settlements by drought and insecurity – perfect conditions for cholera to thrive.

    “[The] WASH infrastructure in Somalia is totally collapsed due to the absence of the government,” explained Hassan Ahmed Ali, a Water Sanitation and Hygiene expert with the Norwegian Refugee Council, a development agency.

    Unknown scale

    The extent of Somalia’s cholera crisis is likely to be a good deal worse than the official numbers suggest.

    There are no health clinics or hospitals for 400,000 displaced people clumped in settlements along the two main arterial roads that feed into Mogadishu.

    Ali of the NRC believes many people, not counted in the statistics, will have died before they could reach treatment. Neither are the cases counted in the swathe of territory controlled by the jihadist group al-Shabab, which is battling the government.

    Compounding the effects of the war, three consecutive seasons of drought have served to tip Somalia into an even deeper food crisis. More than 6.2 million people – over half the population – need aid. That vulnerability increases their susceptibility to cholera.

    Rules and regulations

    “Unless the systems are strengthened, we can only save lives. Long-term social well-being cannot be achieved,” said Mahboob Ahmed Bajwa, the head of WASH for the UN’s children’s agency, UNICEF.

    “Systems” refers both to the federal government’s loose relationship with the decentralised states, and the country’s generally pitiful infrastructure.

    National institutions are weak. In the absence of government, all water supply is privatised and unregulated. These profit-driven companies do not overly concern themselves with cleanliness or quality, despite the obvious risks.

    Doctor Lul Mohamed, head of paediatrics at Bandir Hospital, points to the problem of open defecation, and to the lack of controls that allows what toilets are available to be built right next to wells.

    The Ministry of Energy and Water Sources is creating new regulations to tackle contamination. But the bill has to go to parliament and will take at least three months to pass into law, according to Omar Shurie, an advisor to the ministry.

    Besides the infrastructural deficiencies, recruiting qualified health workers and paying them regularly is yet another of the seemingly endless tasks on Somalia’s to-do list. Doctor Mohamed, for example, does not receive a government salary. She earns money lecturing at a university in the city, only working at Bandir out of a sense of duty.

    Stronger response

    Despite the magnitude of the current food crisis and the cholera outbreak, the response of the humanitarian community and the generosity of the Somali diaspora have built a better ability to cope compared to previous disasters.

    “Aid works, and it is critical that we continue providing this support throughout the remainder of 2017” 

    In 2011, drought led to a famine in which 250,000 people died from hunger and related diseases, including cholera. 

    “The drought in 2016/17 was worse than the previous one [in 2011] but the impact was [not as severe] due to improved overall capacity to respond,” said Doctor Abdinasir Abubakar, head of the WHO’s Communicable Disease Surveillance and Response.

    “Similarly, the cholera outbreak could have been worse if appropriate preparedness and response interventions had not been implemented.”

    According to Thomas Lay, humanitarian director of Save the Children: “This collective effort has resulted in a positively different situation than we saw at the same point in the 2011 drought.

    “Aid works, and it is critical that we continue providing this support throughout the remainder of 2017.” 

    What lies ahead?

    Over the past few weeks, the trend in acute watery diarrhoea and cholera has been declining, with some regions having no new cases. 

    Doctor Abubakar is confident: “The risk of another wave of cholera outbreak is high, but the preparedness and response capacities have been scaled up.”

    However, there is little ressembling a long-term silver lining here.

    The WHO has warned that although the current rains have brought drought relief, the ensuing floods are now expected to increase the number of cholera cases.

    Two-year-old Mohamed Yusuf is lifeless, but not dead. His brown eyes are glazed and unfocused, rolled back into bony sockets. His mother brought him to Bandir a day ago with acute watery diarrhoea. Now he’s hooked up to an IV line and rehydrating.

    Her son splayed across her lap, Mohamed’s mother looks more angry than sad, batting flies off his angular face. He is getting better, but the endless war and cycle of drought mean the conditions that caused his illness are unlikely to improve anytime soon.


    TOP PHOTO: Cholera treatment centre, CREDIT: Catherine Mumbi Trocaire/CAFOD

    Somalia’s impossible fight against cholera
  • The Somali pirates are back (SPOILER ALERT: they never really left)

    A pirate with a full beard makes an ironic salute as I walk towards him across the red gravel of the prison yard in Garowe, the capital of the Somali region of Puntland. His fellow prisoners turn away in disgust or yell curses at me through the bars.

    "We hate you. It's your fault that we are sitting here like animals in a cage. It’s humiliating that white men always come and take photos of us and repeat the same stupid questions," scoffs the pirates’ spokesman, Abdi Mahad.

    There are 47 ex-pirates locked up in Garowe, most of them serving decades-long sentences. According to the prison warden, only the lowest ranking pirates are doing time in the EU-funded facility, along with soldiers from the jihadist insurgent group al-Shabab, petty cattle thieves, and domestic abusers.

    This is what the flagship of Western engagement looks like up close: 47 luckless men behind bars on a rocky plateau in a country tested by drought and instability.

    But the fight against piracy has produced results. To protect the shipping lanes through the Gulf of Aden, the international powers sent warships and the EU trained the Somali coast guard. At piracy’s peak in 2010-13, more than 100 ships were being hijacked per year and millions of dollars paid in ransom. In 2015 and most of 2016 there were no successful hijackings.

    The EU's Operation Atalanta is still patrolling the Gulf of Aden alongside the Indian, Russian, and Chinese navies. But NATO's vessels left for other hot spots in December last year, and the pressure on the pirates has decreased considerably. 

    As a result, the attacks have begun again. At least five ships have been hijacked off the coast of Somalia this year, among them the oil tanker Aris 13 and a fishing vessel, which was transformed into a so-called mother ship from where new hijackings can be orchestrated.

    Piracy’s money capital

    Puntland, a rugged province at the tip of the Horn of Africa, is where piracy began; it’s also from here that several of the recent attacks have been launched.

    Puntland is an autonomous region, slightly better off than the rest of Somalia, but it still suffers from chronic poverty and insecurity. It is where so-called Islamic State has established a toehold, and is also a base for al-Shabab. Every week there are assassinations, ambushes, and suicide attacks. 

    Garowe, 200 kilometres from the coast, houses the region’s politicians and business elite. Lots of investment in the pirate industry has come from the wealthy in this city. The evidence is in the skyline: the unmistakable Holy Day hotel for example, shaped like the hull of a ship, is owned by a famous pirate who has now transformed it into apartments.

    In front of another of the city's hotels waits a 10-metre-long pink limousine. Ali Ahmed rents it out for $50 an hour and says there was a great demand for it during the heyday of piracy. Now it’s only in use a couple of times a month, mostly for weddings. One of the front wheels is flat.

    Garowe is a surprisingly cosmopolitan city. There are electricians from India, Pakistani construction workers, Kenyan chefs, Ugandan receptionists, tattooed South African security guards, and several Somalis who have returned from distant places like Stockholm, Melbourne, and Minnesota. 

    People walking in the streets are not armed. Money is still being laundered, but the criminals have become more discreet. The notorious arms dealer Gaagaale – "he who stutters" – no longer has a shed down by the roundabout. You can, however, still buy Makarov pistols from him for $1,600 or a Kalashnikov for $1,400 if you know someone who has his number. Apparently, my Danish-Somali guide does.


    The pink limousine was in great demand in the heydays of piracy
    Frederik Østerby/IRIN
    The pink limousine was in great demand in the heydays of piracy

    The criminal networks

    We drive to the Puntland Development Research Center, a respected NGO, to find out how the pirates have made a comeback after seemingly being reduced to a problem of the past.

    "Their access to ships was blocked, but the criminal networks prevailed. Therefore, they have resumed the attacks now that the world seems to have forgotten about them again,” explains Abdinasir Yusuf, who has been researching piracy and criminal networks in Somalia for 10 years. 

    “Only the increased number of guards on the ships means that the scale of piracy is smaller this time around.”

    The first pirates were fishermen who attacked ships that exploited the lawlessness of Somalia to trawl the sea for fish and dump toxic waste. But Yusuf believes this romantic depiction has long lost its truth.

    "It's not about fish. It's cynical opportunism. Criminals do what they can get away with – not what they can make a moral case for,” he notes.

    “The same organised criminals who run the piracy network have committed a lot of other crimes as well.”

    He tells me about a Somali awareness campaign, which the head of the research centre, Ali Farah Ali, participated in together with the aldermen, imams, and clan leaders.

    "They … challenged the local mafia by presenting real arguments against the benefits of being recruited as a pirate. They are the pirate conflict’s unsung heroes. Unlike many Western-led awareness campaigns, they were both matter-of-fact and unpretentious," Yusuf says. 

    The director himself says he showed illiterate young men in the coastal cities videos of how pirate ships were blown up and statistics proving how few pirates actually struck it rich.


    These kinds of initiatives have helped stigmatise piracy. There is evidence of this everywhere in Garowe. Some semi-completed palaces are rapidly turning into dilapidated ruins because nobody wanted to buy them from the pirates when they ran out of money.

    Most local businessmen now oppose them. One of them is 32-year-old Ahmed Jama Jowle who earned his money selling used cars and office furniture. Three years ago he opened Classic Stadium, an astroturfed arena. "I wanted to give youngsters an alternative to joining up with the pirates," he explains.

    It’s evening and the floodlights illuminate a Ramadan Cup game. The quality of the football is quite good – Garowe has won the Somali championship. But only a few, if any, of the boys will be able make a living playing soccer; several of them tell you that nine out of 10 of their friends are unemployed. 


    Ramadan Cup at Garowe's Classic Stadium
    Frederik Østerby/IRIN
    Ramadan Cup at Garowe's Classic Stadium

    Piracy may have taken a hit, but according to the think tanks OEF Research, Oceans Beyond Piracy, and Secure Fisheries, new business models are being developed by its entrepreneurial leaders – including people smuggling and arms smuggling.

    "Pirates have been smuggling migrants for a long time,” one of the main authors of the report, Ben Lawellin, explains in an email. “It has helped them stay afloat while the piracy was at a low point, and the practice has helped finance the recent attacks."

    On the outskirts of Garowe is a large camp for refugees and internally displaced persons. “We call it Washington because the tall solar cell lampposts resemble skyscrapers at night from a distance," laughs 20-year-old cook Idil Ghalbi. She is sitting in front of a small restaurant with walls of milk cartons, together with some women who are also Somalis born in Ethiopia. 

    They have fled the unrelenting clan wars of the border region and a drought that has left over six million Somalis in need of emergency aid. On her way from the border to Garowe, she was forced to pay (all told) the equivalent of $1,800 to unknown gunmen at the countless roadblocks.  

    Out of Puntland

    Two of Africa's largest migrant routes run through Puntland up to the region's big northern port city of Bosaso. One goes from there by boat to Yemen and on to the Gulf States, the other via Sudan and Libya to Europe.

    It’s estimated that each migrant on these routes pays smugglers around $10,000. Usually the amount is only due near the end of the journey, but the stories of abuse and extortion en route are legion and shocking.

    A spokesperson for the ‘Washington’ camp estimates that each month about 100 people quietly leave. They rarely talk about their plans, since it’s forbidden to migrate, which only increases the opportunities for smugglers to take advantage. 

    A year ago, Abdikadir Mohamud Barre left Kismayo in southern Somalia with the intention of reaching Europe, since it was only al-Shabab that could offer him a steady job. The 23-year-old was arrested in Ethiopia and sent to the jail in Garowe, where the pirates also serve time. 

    His journey started when he was asked by someone he was chewing khat (a mildly narcotic leaf heavily used across the region) with whether he wanted to migrate. His answer was “yes”. Then they called some local smugglers who arranged everything and told him precisely what to do. He never met the smuggler bosses.

    "But there were Somalis along the entire smuggler route and many of them looked like hardcore criminals – whether some of them were pirates, I don’t know," he says. 

    We are interrupted by a malnourished cat throwing itself against the plastic window in the prison's living room. "Everyone wants to leave, as you can see. I'll try again as soon as I am released." 

    The criminal networks are difficult to map because most people with access to first-hand information about their methods work for the intelligence agencies and rarely give interviews. But through a common acquaintance I convince one to make an exception.

    He is Somali, does freelance consultancy for foreign intelligence services, and has just completed several months of fieldwork among Puntland's migrant smugglers.

    We meet on the roof terrace of my hotel. A minaret calls to evening prayer, and the street below us is full of children playing, and bleating goats. I'm allowed to read an excerpt from his report, in which a number of confirmed migrant smugglers are mentioned by name. 

    "It was not the focus of the report, but I found out that several pirate moneymen have become rich off of the migrant smuggling," he says. 

    "One of them is a police officer. He told me that he has earned a great deal of money on migrant smuggling. He claimed not to be active anymore, but several other smugglers said he was. According to the police officer and the other smugglers, the pirate bosses and their networks play a major role in both the smuggling of weapons and human beings."


    Refugee in Washington IDP camp in Garowe
    Frederik Østerby/IRIN
    Refugee in Washington IDP camp

    The consultant explains that there are no clear boundaries between the criminal networks based on the type of crime they commit. "Instead, they are separated from each other based on which regions they operate from,” he says.

    “The same boats often smuggle migrants to Yemen and weapons the other way. Those who are based east of Bosaso are focused on selling weapons to Islamic State – those west of Bosaso typically sell to al-Shabab."

    It is easier for the terrorist groups to work together with the smugglers than to do the smuggling themselves. And it makes sense for former pirates to invest in any type of ship-borne smuggling.

    "It is a big logistical operation to transport, house, and feed migrants who do not pay in advance. The moneymen behind the pirates and their network of business people from the same clan have this money,” the consultant says.

    “And they needed something to invest in after it became difficult to hijack ships in Puntland around 2012 because of all the foreign warships and guards on the ships.”

    Friends in high places

    Puntland's smuggling gangs collaborate not only with pirates and terrorists, but also with some of the region's politicians. These politicians are dependent on shady arms deals because the UN has had an arms embargo placed on Somalia since 1992. 

    Each year, a UN monitoring group produces a detailed report on how effectively the embargo is enforced, and the report is always full of exciting details about Somalia's organised criminals. The latest report from October deals with, among others, the pirate boss Isse Mohamoud Yusuf ‘Yullux's’ relationships with politicians, weapons smugglers, and Islamists.

    It was Yullux who kidnapped a Danish yachting family from Kalundborg in 2011. Yullux's orange henna-bearded cousin, Sheikh Abdulqader Mumin, leads IS in Somalia, which is part of the so-called Qandala-Hafun network. 

    Among the network’s well-known political friends in Puntland is a former minister of fisheries and the governor of the Bari region from 2011-15. According to the report, a representative of the network transfers $4,000 per month to an account in the Puntland Treasury Department for each illegal foreign fishing vessel once more bottom trawling off the coast, with former pirates employed as private security guards. 

    Jonnah Leff, who has researched Somali smuggling networks for Conflict Armament Research since 2013, confirms by email that Puntland's government is most likely still using these smugglers to provide weapons for their soldiers: "It's systemic. It's also why the smugglers are able to continue operating with impunity. They're all related by clan.”

    One of the most prominent critics of the links between pirates, politicians, smugglers, and extremists is Abdirizak Dirir ‘Duaysane’.  He founded Puntland's anti-piracy unit in 2010 and until recently he led it with considerable success. From May 2012 to this year, no pirate was paid a ransom fee in Puntland. 

    According to Duaysane, piracy has returned because Iranian, Yemeni, and Asian trawlers have impunity. They need to be stopped, or even more angry fishermen will join the ranks of the pirates, Duaysane warned in an interview with BBC Somalia in March this year. That same evening, he was fired. 

    "The government of Puntland is systematically collaborating with pirates and illegal bottom trawlers," Duaysane told me when I met him at the extravagant Laico Regency Hotel in Kenya's capital, Nairobi. “They do not fight maritime crime, but are accomplices to it." 


    TOP PHOTO: Convicted pirates in Garowe jail. CREDIT: Frederik Østerby

    An IRIN investigation reveals the extent to which Somalia’s pirates are back in business and this time it’s as much about smuggling people and weapons
    Somali pirates, part 2: The return

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