THE CRY OF A DYING PEOPLE
VIOLENCE AND FAMINE STALK DROUGHT-RAVAGED SOMALIA AS AID BEGINS TO FLOW
Death offered little dignity when at last it claimed 12-year-old Fatuma Hussein Mohamed. In an outdoor garage that had been converted to a feeding centre in the southern Somali city of Baidoba, aid workers covered the dying girl’s wasted chest with a blanket and placed her head in the only available shade from the midday African sun: under the rusted cab of a cannibalized truck. But Fatuma’s withered legs were still visible to the 200 malnourished Somali men, women and children who waited in line just a few metres away, each holding a tin container or plastic bag for the grim ritual of receiving a ladle of rice and beans. At the gates to the camp, one of 22 in the city, armed guards kept dozens of other desperately hungry people away by beating them back with sticks and the barrels of machine-guns. But Fatuma was long past being able to take her place in line. In that dry, dusty, terrible place, even her soft moans finally ceased. Shortly after noon, she died alone, the last of her family. Fatuma was the ninth person to die in the feeding centre that day. She was among the countless people who have died in one of the cruellest droughts and wars ever to afflict the Horn of Africa, now one of the most brutal and meanest comers of the world.
Last week, the United States began a massive military airlift of food, much of it donated by Canada and the European Community, to Somalia and neighboring Kenya which, like several other African countries, is also caught in what has become the continent’s worst drought of the century. But the aid was slow in coming. Not until late August, after Egyptianborn UN Secretary General Boutros BoutrosGhali condemned the West for ignoring what he called the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, did the international community react in earnest. Still, international relief experts say
that roughly two million of the country’s seven million people face starvation. Now, the toughest task facing aid workers is getting food to the neediest, along ruptured supply lines threatened by heavily armed bandits.
In Baidoba, once a thriving market centre of 20,000 people about 240 km inland from Somalia’s Indian Ocean coastline, the settlement has become a city of the dead. Most of the former residents long ago abandoned their homes, victimized first by Somalia’s 1991 civil war and then by roving thieves who stripped the city of furniture and other personal possessions. Baidoba now plays hellish host to uncounted thousands of starving Somalis who have fled a countryside barren of food after three consecutive years of drought, and who await death in its gutted buildings or in tiny makeshift huts of brambles and pieces of tin. Small fires lit from twigs or garbage bum for evening warmth, casting an acrid-smelling haze down desolate alleys once thriving with cafés, shops and market stalls. And through that eerie scene saunter boys and young men, dazed by an amphetamine-like drug called khat, shoulder-
ing weapons with which they wage battles for control of stolen food and aid supplies.
Each dawn reveals the toll of that anarchy. There are bodies everywhere: from the courtyard of the only functioning hospital to the squalid squatters’ camps that have risen up on the outskirts of Baidoba, and along the roads leading into the city where weakened refugees simpy lost the strength to go any further. In another time, Baidoba might be the worst place on earth. But now, it may not even be the worst place in Somalia. From the southern port cities of Kismayu and the capital, Mogadishu, to the flattened city of Hargeisa in the north, the long, narrow Muslim country on the Hom of Africa suffers from devastation by a twin pestilence of famine and war.
Dreamlike: Aid workers say that malnutrition is so severe that at least one in four Somali children under the age of five has already died, and many more will die even though foreign aid is finally beginning to enter the country in significant amounts. “We are talking about losing a whole generation,” said Ronald Dierwechter, 57, an American doctor with the International Medical Corps aid organization in Baidoba. “People cannot go without food for as long as these people have without doing permanent damage to their minds and bodies.”
That assessment is starkly evident in cities such as Baidoba, where the wretchedness is so widespread that healthy children are simply impossible to find and the hungry move about in an emotionally spent, dreamlike state. There are no smiles in Baidoba, and no tears for the dead. In a tiny, open-air room in the centre of town, 45-year-old Mohammed Isaak Mayo shrugged when asked about the condition of his wife and four children, who lay on the stone floor wearing rags. Three of the children coughed incessantly, and the other was so stricken by dysentery that he could not move.
The family had taken shelter there a month earlier after looters stole the last livestock from their farm. “You can’t live without food,” said Mayo matter-of-factly. “I expect all of us to die.” Somalia’s suffering has gone on for so long that normal parental behavior has van-
ished. Mayo raised the left arm of his eightyear-old son, Mabao, to reveal a still-bleeding wound from a stray bullet that had grazed the boy under his armpit the day before. But the father made no move to get medical help for his son, lying coughing in the comer of the hovel.
Pain: But although hunger and gunshots have become a way of life to the Somalis, the rest of the world has been slow to respond to its pain. For one thing, the end of the Cold War has closed the chapter of history that turned the desolate Hom of Africa into a strategic playground for the superpowers. Somalia gained independence from its colonial overlords, Britain and Italy, in 1960. But when Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre seized power in a 1969 coup, he became a willing participant in the EastWest competition for influence in the Horn.
First, the Soviet Union supplied his regime with weapons and aid. Then, when Barre went to war in 1977 with Ethiopia, another Moscow client, as part of his attempt to expand westward, the Soviets abandoned him. Barre simply
switched sides to the Americans, who were eager to assume the naval and air bases from which to monitor the Gulf of Aden.
By January, 1991, when Barre was toppled in a coup that plunged Somalia into its current inter-clan battle for control of the country, the Cold War was over and the Hom had lost its geopolitical importance. But the legacy of that era endures: the thousands of guns which poured into the region in the 1970s and 1980s are now used to hijack food convoys or to settle personal scores, sometimes between boys as young as 12.
In the vacuum left by Barre’s departure, onetime allies and now rival warlords Mohamed Farrah Aidid and Ali Mahdi Mohamed engaged in a deadly power struggle. Neither has offered a detailed political program, but both say that they want a national reconciliation conference leading to a multiparty interim government, followed by elections. Their one irreconcilable difference is subclan blood ties: although both men are Muslims who belong to the Hawiye clan, one of many in Somalia, Aidid and his followers are Habar-Gedirs, Ali Mahdi and his men are Abgals.
THOUSANDS OF STARVING SOMALIS ABANDON THE BARREN COUNTRYSIDE
Aidid’s faction objected when Ali Mahdi declared himself interim president. Their feud illustrates the depth of clan and subclan loyalties in Somalia, which was considered one of Africa’s most homogeneous states before the fighting erupted last year. Their conflict has claimed tens of thousands of lives and devastated the capital. It has also greatly exacerbated the famine brought on by the drought afflicting eastern and southern Africa (page 27). A shaky ceasefire between the two groups, negotiated by the UN, has been in place since March.
Preoccupied by the crisis in the Balkans and partly inured to the chronic food shortages in the Horn region, Western leaders paid little attention to the chaos in Somalia. By April, violence was so endemic that the United Nations even pulled its relief workers out of the country, leaving a small band of overtaxed private organizations, such as France’s Doctors Without Borders and the International Committee of the Red Cross, to provide the only medical and food relief.
Bandits: The western airlift has not solved Somalia’s most pressing problem: how to ensure that the food and medical supplies reach the people who need them most. Marauding thieves and the various military factions have been systematically stealing food for months. Sacks of emergency food that the UN sent to Somalia from Kenya have even re-emerged for sale in Kenyan towns. Because bandits fre-
quently attack food convoys as they move along Somalia’s rocky road system, the only safe havens in the country are those areas where no food aid is getting in at all. Aid workers have resigned themselves to losing up to half of each food shipment to theft, dismissing losses as the price of doing business in Somalia.
Last week, Boutros-Ghali recommended that 3,000 armed UN peacekeepers—a force that will likely include a Canadian battalion— be added to the original contingent of 500 soldiers expected to arrive in Mogadishu in September to oversee the unloading of relief supplies. But relief workers were skeptical that the food could be adequately protected from theft. “UN soldiers may ensure that the food is not stolen at the port or the airstrip, but the Somalis will just wait to steal it somewhere futher down the line,” said Matthew Bryden, a 24-year-old Canadian aid worker from Toronto who has been in Somalia for three years and who is now helping co-ordinate the French Doctors Without Borders operations in Mogadishu. Added Bryden: “Until the food is cooked and put on to a plate, they will find a way to get their hands on it.”
The banditry makes living in the vicinity of food in Somalia a very dangerous proposition. Although there are still some skirmishes between various political factions despite the ceasefire, most gunplay is from fighting over food. At noon one day last week on a crowded street in Baidoba, two groups of teenage boys from the same clan began shouting at each other in a dispute over control of food stocks.
Within seconds, weapons that are casually slung over shoulders were being cocked and aimed in a street fight that displayed an uncomfortable variation: one man aimed a rocket-propelled grenade launcher at another’s chest from less than five feet away.
After further threats, the argument was broken up and referred to clan elders to be resolved. Even so, both sides fired several rounds at each other as they drove away in their Land Rovers.
Many stray rounds are hitting innocent bystanders. In Mogadishu’s Medina Hospital, in a neighborhood where factional fighting is still waged every few days, threeyear-old Ciisa Idraam lay on a cot one afternoon last week, her left leg fractured by a stray bullet. On what was described by French Dr. Jean Paul Dixmaras as an extraordinarily quiet day, the only other two emergency patients were also bullet-wound victims: a woman who had been hit in the shoulder, and a young man who appeared to have had his left foot tom off by a bullet that had crashed through his shin. But the three patients at least had the good fortune to be treated at Medina: as Barre’s personal hospital before he fled to Kenya, it has some of the best equipment in the city. Under a bright operating light powered by a generator and with access to drills to put a pin in place, Dixmaras was able to save the young man’s foot, at least in the short term.
Those conditions are the exception in Somalia. In Baidoba’s hospital, a 100-bed, villa-style compound that Italians built in the 1930s, Dierwechter operates under primitive conditions. Water is limited to three pails each day, and local thieves frequently loot medicine from the pharmacy. With sterilization impossible, hospital staff say that nearly every wound becomes infected. And because there is no generator, the only light is whatever sunlight gets through the narrow windows into the dingy, blood-stained room. “I can’t see well enough to operate after five o’clock,” said the white-bearded Dierwechter. “Unfortunately, most of the firefights in town seem to happen between 4:30 and six o’clock, when everyone is high on khat.” Like Dixmaras in Mogadishu, Dierwechter also put a pin into a patient’s leg last week. But lacking a drill or even a hammer, he used a rock to drive the pin home.
Warrior: The fighting in Baidoba has abated since early August, when the hospital was handling between 30 and 40 gunshot victims each day. But the IMC team is still treating Somalis who arrive at its gates with bullet wounds that are several months old and so infected that amputation is often the only treatment. “Someone has to find a way to make 95 per cent of these guns disappear, because these kids think they’re Rambo,” said an angry Dierwechter, gesturing towards a teenage boy lying in a post-operative bed with bullet wounds in his right leg and left elbow. He added: “This is one young warrior who has fought his last gunfight: he’ll never pull a trigger again, with that elbow wound.” The disability is a crippling prospect in Somalia, where the evil equation is that those with guns are those who eat.
At a nearby feeding centre, 35-year-old Ibrahaim Abukar knelt over the still body of his three-year-old son, Hawaye, and tried to close the boy’s eyes as he took his final breaths. Obviously drained of emotion, the father showed no sign of grief as he watched his tiny son die, the third of his six children to do so. “Death has become as natural to them as swallowing,” said Omar Abdi Farrah, a transla-
tor, as he watched another emaciated child being laid beside Hawaye on a burial cloth called a kafan to await death. “Before, they would dig a nice grave and lay the body on its right side, make a clay pillow, and mark the grave with a stone,” he explained. “But these days they just dig a hole and put the body in without a ceremony.” The drought has made the ground so hard that, in Baidoba, graves are being dug in the softer earth along the now dry riverbed, which poses an enormous health hazard if the rains return and the river refills.
No food aid at all has reached into the parched, rocky hinterland west of Baidoba. There, two nomadic clans have come together to try to survive the drought, uncounted and unserved by any Western relief workers. “This is the worst drought of my lifetime,” said Isaak Ido, 41, as he stood in one of five kitchen huts where a security detail armed with old muskets guarded the groups’ limited food resources. On the floor sat one man who was bleeding from a head wound after being beaten for trying to steal food. Ido blames the war, not the famine, for the clans’ suffering. Barre’s troops who extorted food came and went through the village so many times, said Ido, that “we feel like grass that has been trampled on.”
Barre’s retreating troops also ravaged the small town of Wajid, 90 km northwest of Baidoba, killing local camels for food and leaving behind not much more than two disabled Soviet-built tanks and nearly 400 starving orphans.
As of last week, no Western aid had reached the village of 5,000 people, swollen beyond that number by refugees from the 30 to 40 surrounding villages. “It seems that we are not even on the map,” said district commissioner Mohalin Noor, 40. “Please tell the world to send us clean blankets so we can bury our dead,” he asked. “Our religion forbids us from burying them in the dirty sacks we have.” There is almost nothing to eat in Wajid, and some people chew dried animal hides or straw for sustenance. But unlike the madness of Baidoba, there was no violence in Wajid. People gathered outside foodless cafés after dark to talk and drink tea over the glow of kerosene lamps. The clan selected leaders to try to see them through the crisis, and one of their first acts was to appropriate all weapons. “The situation is peaceful because we are all from the same clan,” explained security officer Yusuf Abdusman. “There are no outsiders here.” Prayers: One stark difference between Wajid and Baidoba was evident shortly before sunset, when a wave of curious children swarmed around a group of armed teenagers escorting visitors to Wajid. To get the children to move back, 16-year-old Ali Hassan Ghedi, eyes glassy from chewing khat, raised his Kalashnikov rifle and fired a shot over their heads. Wajid’s elders were furious, but Ghedi plays by Baidoba rules. “If that had been one of our people we would have arrested him,” said Abdusman late that night, as he and Noor sat in one of the village homes explaining Wajid’s crisis to visitors. The two men were emphatic that war, not drought, lay at the root of Somalia’s trials. “There were droughts before Siad Barre’s time and we survived,” said Noor. “But everything we need to get through this drought has been eaten or destroyed.” As the two men left the hut and stepped into the clear desert night, a group of women could be heard singing prayers from the Koran in hope for, as Noor said, “an end to our troubles.”
At daybreak, the district commissioner rose early to lead a parade of villagers across Wajid's moonscape to a hut on the outskirts of town where the troubles had claimed another victim in the night. A light desert wind blew a taunting mist of rain in their faces as they gathered around a weeping Habiba Ali-Suleiman, now widowed with she horribly sick, famished children to care for. The scene was so wrenching that neither Noor nor the townspeople said anything. For minutes there was no sound but the soft song of the widow’s weeping.
The night before, Noor had voiced his anger and frustration at the anonymity with which towns like Wajid were slowly dying. “Why does no one help us?” he asked. “Are we not human beings?” And to wait for an answer, he leaned intently forward on his cane, a traditional symbol of the elder’s authority and a talisman of respect. But in the hell that is modem Somalia, where old rules no longer apply and where the social order has given way to an anarchic struggle for survival, respect now seems to have only one source: the point of a gun.