Camps of the displaced and hungry are once again growing daily in southern Somalia.
The UN’s World Food Programme estimates that so far some 30,000 Somalis have fled their homes. Overall, UN agencies caution that one million people now face food shortages this year in the central and southern regions of Somalia with one third of that number at “very high risk”.
Here in Baar Dheere town in Gedo region, dozens of families have trekked up to 100 km to seek assistance. Each day more trickle in. Many abandoned Raxole, 75 km to the east in Bay region, after five harvests in succession failed, then water-holes dried up or became contaminated. A recent upsurge of fighting also brought fears of raids by clan militias.
The Raxole villagers come from the Rahanwein clan which suffered the brunt of the 1992 famine when up to 300,000 people, many of them children, perished.
“If these people were left as they were in 92, they would all die - no doubt about it,” Roger Carter, UNICEF emergency officer in Baar Dheere, told IRIN.
The crisis is running to the same calendar as the last famine, also caused by insecurity and a sequence of bad harvests. At that time humanitarian food reached the interior by July - too late to save many. This time around, Carter and his UNICEF team have been distributing Supermix since November. Under-fives have been immunised at the same time as food is distributed each fortnight.
To drive out through the villages is a haunting experience. Farm tools and possessions have been abandoned in neat beehive huts. Residents apparently left in a hurry, carrying only infants and what utensils they could.
Stiff, shrivelled stalks of sorghum bear testament to the fact that many did not even have to wait to see whether there would be a harvest this January.
Some children as well as adults among the Raxole peasants were very sick in Baar Dheere’s camps, particularly the new arrivals. UNICEF says December surveys showed overall malnutrition rates at 20 per cent in Bay and Bakool, with 5-7 per cent severe.
In separate camps around Baar Dheere are hundreds of displaced from Sacco, 80 km to the south, where two rival Rahanwein clans have been locked in a bitter feud for three months.
Others again are the long-term displaced, Marehan nomads who lost their stock or Rahanwein farmers who never returned home after the 1992 famine. Humanitarian sources say all these communities are vulnerable, especially as the region’s economy is expected to deteriorate further in the coming months.
The IDPs have spread far and wide in southern Somalia, often beyond the reach of humanitarian aid. IRIN also visited Jilib, on the Jubba River and 380 km south of Mogadishu. Here, both children and adults perished on the 200 km road from Raxole. One mother lost three of her children, relatives said. Cases of kwashiorkor, marasmus, respiratory diseases, scabies, diarrhoea and malaria - all these conditions appeared to be present in the sad camps of Jilib.
Jilib appeared quiet, but remains off-limits to international UN workers and many NGOs. This is due to its position on the thoroughfare for militias on their way to attack rivals in Kismayu, about 100 km away, where fighting has recently flared again. Nor has humanitarian aid reached many pockets of IDPs seen on the road north along the River Shebelle. Many of these families were from around Baidoa and Burhakaba.
IDPs were seen eating animal hides, bananas and mangoes which they begged or earned by labouring on local farms, chopping wood or weaving mats known as da’ar.
FIVE FAILED HARVESTS
The Raxole people in Baar Dheere and Jilib said their decision to abandon their farms came after the short Deyr rains failed in late-1998. The first day of rain had come in early-October, when they sowed their red sorghum seed. It did not rain again for weeks, causing considerable seed loss. They sowed again, but in a reduced area since they could afford less seed the second time around. It rained for a few days in November, enough to germinate, but was dry after that. The sorghum died on the stalk.
The latest failed Deyr crop follows four previous failed harvests since early 1997. The Deyr season of late-1997 coincided with severe ‘El Nino’ floods across southern Somalia, which damaged not only farms but also wells and water catchments, roads and irrigation channels. Other ills followed, such as rodent infestations and livestock diseases. (Following an outbreak of Rift Valley Fever in the south, Saudi Arabia imposed a ban on all Somali livestock, undermining the economy’s most lucrative export, particularly from the north).
The area of Raxole, in Bay region, is at the epicentre of a drought that Leslie Mctyre of UNICEF first noticed in June last year. Soon after that he filed his first report of people moving off the land.
“It spread like an ink blot outwards from a triangle between Baidoa, Qansax Dheere and Dinsor,” Mctyre, UNICEF’s resident project officer in central Somalia, told IRIN. In the last eight months it has spread out between and beyond the Jubba and Shebelle rivers and into the central regions of Galgaduud and Mudug.
The joint UN-NGO Food Security Assessment Unit (FSAU) workers on the ground forecast poor sorghum and maize harvests in rain-fed areas following almost total failure of the Deyr rains in late-1998. Mctyre has received reports from the nomadic Galgaduud region of many camels dying - an indication of the drought’s severity. Even the two rivers are noticeably low. At Jowhar, the Shebelle is so shallow a man can walk across it.
In Jilib, local farmers from the Bantu and other farming communities are anxious. Even though they farm up to the Jubba’s banks, their crops are still mainly rainfed or flood recession, lift irrigation being a rarity in comparison with the gravity irrigation of the Shebelle. They said they had exhausted their food stocks and did not expect to obtain good harvests, due either to drought or conversely flood damage. River banks and dykes along the Jubba, as well as the Shebelle, are ever more prone to bursting due to lack of maintenance this decade.
In Middle Jubba, rodent infestations following last year’s floods further exaccerbated the problem.
THE COLLAPSE OF WATER RESOURCES
Flying over southern Somalia, the eerily-deserted landscape is dotted with water holes as dry as lunar craters.
Displaced people said their second reason for leaving their homes was lack of water. By 1992, the water infrastructure of southern Somalia was well on its way towards crisis. Last year, the El Nino floods damaged, silted up or contaminated many of the remaining wells and water holes. Their degradation is largely due to the neglect of maintenance through eight years of clan war and lack of a central authority taking responsibility for their upkeep.
Insecurity, lack of funds or spare parts, even alarming reports that water resources are being vandalised by clan enemies as they were in the 1991-2 civil war have prevented local maintenance of wells and water catchments.
Roger Carter paints a picture of the near collapse of water resources. In Bay’s Qansax Dheere town, for example, he describes how one borehole serves some 20,000 residents. The pipe is corroded and can be pumped for only 20 minutes at a time.
“If the borehole broke down, the whole town would have no choice but to move immediately,” says Carter. UNICEF has taken the initiative and contracted Somalis from the town to repair the borehole, averting a potential catastrophe at a cost of just US $700.
All the displaced, interviewed by IRIN, complained of insecurity although it does not compare with 1991-2, when rival Daarod and Hawiye militias devastated the south. Yet today’s feuds can still drive large population movements.
Some of those in Baar Dheere had fled in fear from the vicinity of Sacco, south along the Jubba River, where two sub-clans have been involved in a bitter feud for the last three months.
In and around Bay and Bakool’s towns, Rahanwein militias have been fighting to expel Hussein Aideed’s Habre Gedir forces. Blood feuds between sub-clans of the Rahanwein, such as the one in Sacco, have recently gained in intensity. Finally, skirmishes between militias for the control of Kismayu promise to bring that protracted conflict to a head and is likely to affect populations in the hinterland of the Jubba Valley, perhaps even further afield.
Bantu minorities along the Jubba were suffering again when IRIN visited them west of Jilib. Militia from the river’s west bank looted and burned Ormalle village on 15 January in retaliation for the killing of one of their own, whom the Bantus alleged had terrorised them for years. The militia brutally murdered one Bantu woman in the waters of the Jubba, then carried off her infant. About 550 people were made homeless by the violence.
Insecurity in Somalia is still the key factor undermining humanitarian operations. On 26 January, an international worker for the NGO Terra Nuova was murdered in Gedo - regarded by agencies as one of the quietest regions in southern Somalia.
Bay and Bakool have been “no-go areas” for international UN staff since September 1995. Most NGOs pulled out after the murder of an MSF doctor in Baidoa in June 1997. Only the International Medical Corps currently maintains an office in the town. UN Somalia Security Head Wayne Long told IRIN that despite the looming crisis he doubted whether security restrictions on the regions would not be changed in the short term. Somali UN staffers are not covered by the same regulations and are sent in occasionally, he said.
Just as in 1992, humanitarian agencies face the dilemma of weighing a desire to assist Somalis against the real threat of being harassed or even killed in the process.
Nevertheless, UN agencies report that international donors have responded well to November’s US $18 million emergency appeal for work up to June. Many aid workers, however, are not optimistic of a good response to the longer-term UN appeal for more than US $65 million.
“In terms of assistance, Somalia is seen as having ‘original sin’,” says Lynn Geldof, UNICEF Information Officer, referring to the failed international humanitarian and military intervention in 1992.
The UN estimates one million people - most of the population subsisting on rain-fed crops in the southern regions - are at risk. Since November, WFP’s Michele Quintaglie says over 3,000 mt of food aid have been transported to Gedo, Bay and Bakool. The WFP and CARE International operation will continue at least up to the longed for Gu harvest in June/July with a further 44,349 mt. UNICEF and NGOs are also distributing Supermix and BP-5 to the most vulnerable.
The markets of Baar Dheere and Jilib were both full of food in late January. However, prices were up to double those of a good year and well beyond the reach of the poor: 150,000 Somali shillings ($18.75) for a 50 kilo bag of sorghum and 100,000 Somali shillings ($12.50) for a bag of white maize. An FSAU worker in Baar Dheere told IRIN prices had temporarily dipped following a WFP food distribution, and on expectations that there would be more aid to come, but were now climbing again.
WFP’s policy is currently to deliver mainly to the home areas to encourage displaced people to go home. However, the affected populations consistently say the hope of food aid alone will not persuade them to stay on their farms. They had come to Baar Dheere because they had access to river water, it was safer, there was pittance work to be had, they could beg or sell fire wood - as well as the hope that humanitarian aid was more likely to arrive in centres such as Baar Dheere.
At the port of Merka, 110 km south of Mogadishu, hundreds of chanting stevedores waded into the waves to a barge that ferried cargo between a ship lying at anchor and the shallows. At the barge side they shouldered bags of food and returned up the beach to waiting trucks. This is the way WFP is now getting emergency food supplies into southern Somalia at the ports of Merka and El Maan. (Humanitarian supplies come in through neither Mogadishu port, which has been closed since soon after the withdrawal of UNOSOM in 1995, nor embattled Kismayu).
“It may look cumbersome, but I can unload 7,000 mt in 12 days,” says Abukar Abdi Shirre, standing on the beach at Merka. Abukar is one of the Somali businessmen contracted by WFP to deliver its food by a method the agency reckons is far more effective than the system used in 1992. Then it handled the job of unloading supplies at ports, hiring convoys and security. Food was plundered at points all along the way.
But today, Somali contractors such as Abukar pick up the food in Mombasa and are liable themselves for any losses. They pay a security bond for the value of the WFP contract, which is held until the supplies are delivered to the target villages or towns.
Many sources, including UN workers and the Rahanwein themselves, say that some food is still being grabbed from the mouths of the hungry by militias or unscrupulous elders. But they add that the situation does not compare with the wholesale theft of 1992.
THE COMING MONTHS
The displaced in Baar Dheere said they aim to send back those who are strong enough to prepare the land and plant from mid-March onwards. This is as long as they get seed and the rains are on time. Other family members will stay in the displaced camps until the harvests are assured and the water situation improves.
Displaced farmers stress their urgent need for seed. Many could ill afford the price of 7,000 Somali shillings per kg of red sorghum seed before the last Deyr rains. They said they planted a smaller area as a result. Due to the succession of poor harvests, seed will be in even shorter supply this year. An FAO-led task force for seed distribution ahead of the Gu rains has met twice so far. It estimates 1,340 mt of sorghum and 226 mt of maize - cultivated mainly on irrigated farms - is needed for Bay, Bakool and Gedo.
It must be given out to farmers in rain-fed areas by mid-March if they are to be in time for the onset of the Gu rains. Maize and bean farms along the Jubba and Shebelle are also going to require seed. In Jilib district, peasant farmers said the ICRC had already distributed some seed. The farmers said they wanted more seed - of cassava, for example - a key drought-resistant crop.
The current crisis for peasants in rural areas of the south is certain to get worse. The farms around Tobaako village, 20 km southeast of Baar Dheere, are normally among the most productive in the region’s rainfed areas. IRIN witnessed harvested sorghum in the village. Yet half the village - several hundred people - had vanished, evidence of the peasants’ claim that the harvest was far below normal. For those who remained behind, water was the main problem. The nearby water catchment had dried up completely and so it had to be brought three hours from the Jubba River by donkey at a cost of 20,000 Somali shillings ($2.50) per 200 litre drum - far more than the peasants could afford. At some point soon, both their money and food will run out. Then they, too, will move.
UNICEF’s Carter points out that the food shortages will have knock-on effects that pull down many others in urban and fertile riverine areas.
“At the moment these people can rely on a bit of charity from the more fortunate in town, perhaps their relatives or those who give them some work. As time goes on prices in the market go up, there is less and less to go around and before you know it the people in town will be as badly off as the displaced,” he said.
THE COLLAPSE OF INFRASTRUCTURE
The collapse of water resources must be seen in the wider context of the dereliction of Somalia’s entire infrastructure this decade: physical, environmental and social.
A few examples:
In Baar Dheere, Dr Qassim Egal, a former senior health ministry official and his assistant toil to maintain out-patient health services. The 40-bed hospital itself is closed through lack of resources. In Jilib, a district of 135 villages, there are no doctors or clinics. In both cases, a patient with an obstructed birth or a gunshot wound must travel hundreds of kilometres along washed away tracks that were once roads to obtain treatment.
Apart from Koranic schools, there is no education available in either Jilib or Baar Dheere.
Disease and pests plague livestock and agriculture unchecked, even though these are the cornerstones of the Somali economy.
Somalia’s rich seas are being poached mercilessly. A huge charcoal trade is denuding swathes of Somalia’s soil-holding acacia trees. Sand dunes are engulfing fertile land.
These are just a few of the catalogue of environmental ills now afflicting Somalia. The international community may feed Somalia this year. But unless the long-term environmental crisis is also addressed, it would seem to be a mere holding operation.
On the plus side, a vigorous entrepreneurial spirit has risen out of the ashes of Somalia. Somalia experts say business interests these days are increasingly more important than political rivalries between militias.
In Baar Dheere, trucks carrying commodities such as sugar and electronic goods pass right through the displaced camps. They have come from Mogadishu’s warehouses, crossing militia battle lines at least twice down non-existent roads, on their way to the Kenya border where a lucrative black market trade thrives.
In Jilib, Mohamud Mara-Jiite runs a HF radio powered by solar panels - a sight now common in most Somali villages. From his radio, one can send or receive remittances, or link up with a satellite telephone in Mogadishu and call relatives in the USA.
Across Somalia, the militia fiefdoms of the early 1990s have given way to a quilt of ‘pocket handkerchief’ territories. In Baar Dheere and Jilib, for example, a semblance of administration particularly in the realm of security has emerged under webs of clan elders, militias and business interests. They are still vulnerable to feuds, clan rivalries and gun rule.