THE WORLD MAY HAVE WAITED TOO LONG TO SAVE SOMALIANS FROM A HOLOCAUST OF WAR AND FAMINE
A NATION BEYOND HOPE
THE WORLD MAY HAVE WAITED TOO LONG TO SAVE SOMALIANS FROM A HOLOCAUST OF WAR AND FAMINE
And in a random scorching flame Of wind that parches The painful throat And sears the flesh,
May Allah, in His compassion,
Let you find
The great-boughed tree
That will protect and shade.
—from a Somali poem, To A Friend Going On A Journey, by Mohammed Abdullah Hassan (translated by Margaret Laurence)
In a bleak land of shrubs and dust along the line in the sand that marks Somalia’s border with Kenya, shade and protection are hard to come by. But Hussein Abdullah Hassan, the self-described secretary of defence of the Somali Patriotic Movement, and one of his country’s many warlords, has staked out a place for himself under the limbs of a stunted thorn tree. There, surrounded by grinning, armed soldiers draped in bandoliers of ammunition, and speaking through a translator who identifies himself only as Major Rambo, Hassan talks of peace in a country that knows none. The casualties of the war he wages walk past his gaze: a continuous parade of weak, hungry and, in many cases, wounded Somali refugees heading for the nearby border camp in Liboi, Kenya, in search of a haven from famine and fighting.
“I am ready to talk peace,” Hassan tells the small assembly of relief workers and other outsiders who sit crosslegged around him on the Somali side of the border. But the refugees fleeing the region controlled by his troops tell only of war. “We left because there were bodies in the streets,” said Modifa Noor Haji, a 40-year-old widow who fled her home in the Indian Ocean coastal city of Kismayu with her four children. “It was not even safe for a woman to go to the market anymore.”
Last week, Hassan’s troops, who form part of deposed dictator Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre’s retreating army, continued their sporadic war against the array of political factions that have
already driven them across the Somali interior towards Kenya.
Although much of the heavy fighting has ceased, soldiers and bandits from all factions continue to hold civilians ransom by stealing much of the food and medical aid that is sent to relieve the suffering in the east African country. To try to curtail robberies, the United Nations has announced plans to deploy 3,500 peacekeep-
ers—including 750 Canadian troops, mostly from the Canadian Airborne Regiment at Petawawa, Ont. But most of the troops will not be in Somalia for several weeks. Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross says that about 1,000 Somalis are dying every day.
For months, international aid agencies have warned that the combination of a four-year civil war and a three-year-long drought has left two million of Somalia’s seven million people in imminent danger of starvation. But last week, the magnitude of the human disaster appeared to worsen. Many afflicted areas, far from the major port cities of Mogadishu and Kismayu, have so far received little or no aid at all. Relief agencies are now reporting that many more people than previously estimated are close to dying in those remote, unattended villages. “We have so far seen only the tip of the iceberg,” said Mohamed Sahnoun, the United Nations’ special representative to Somalia, as reports of the suffering in distant regions began filtering in to his headquarters in Mogadishu last week. “A large number of people are just waiting and dying patiently. The disaster is much bigger than we thought.”
Even an ambitious but hastily assembled Western relief effort may not avert a vast disaster. U.S. transport planes were joined by others from Germany and Italy last week, and Canada was expected to begin flights with three Hercules C-130 cargo planes late this week. But so far, only one Somali town has received a planeload of American aid. It is Belet Weyne, on the Ethiopian border in central Somalia, which has the only airstrip where the
Red Cross can guarantee sufficient security. An additional 145,000 tons of U.S. food aid is due to arrive in the region in October, but until then, relief planes will be transporting only the food stocks already in the hands of relief agencies. Members of those agencies say that, whatever happens now, thousands of Somalis are already doomed. “In a city like Baidoba.the malnutrition rate is 99 per cent,” said Catherine Cazeaux of the Red Cross International Committee, which is currently providing about half of the food aid in Somalia. “Even if we could get food to these people tomorrow, it would be too late to save many of them.”
So far, the well-broadcast promise of massive international food aid has had one effect: it has slowed the flight of Somalis to Kenyan refugee camps, which are already straining from the presence of more than 390,000 desperate people. UN officials said that the flow of Somalis into the UN camps along the Kenyan border has declined dramatically, from 1,000 a day just two weeks ago to an average of just 175 each day last week. Said Panos Moumtzis, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Nairobi: “It is not that food is getting in; it is more that people are staying put because of the rumors and assurance that food is coming.”
Still, both the United Nations and the Ke-
nyan government are eager to keep the starving Somalis in Somalia—and provide food for them there—because of the enormous problems involved in maintaining the refugee camps. For some of those who have fled, life in some camps is only marginally better than at home. In Mandera, a burgeoning refugee camp in northeastern Kenya that abuts the part of Somalia where Barre’s troop are putting up the most resistance, 50,000 refugees suffer from a malnutrition rate of 40 per cent, according to UN officials.
Older refugee camps have other problems. Somalis have been coming to Liboi since April, 1991, turning its haphazard sprawl of huts into a village of 45,000. The camp functions like the small city that it is: a maze of dirt roads, with a hospital, schools, and merchants who sell ev-
erything from soap to pasta and medicines from the front of their homes. Under the care and feeding of aid workers, severe malnutrition is limited to the most recent arrivals. Unlike those left behind in the wretchedness of Somalia, the children of Liboi smile easily, and are even sassy to visitors.
But nightfall brings terror to the refugee camp. Although Kenyan authorities now Screen new arrivals for weapons, guns are abundant in Liboi—and violence is endemic. In the camp hospital compound one day last month, doctors treated six people for gunshot wounds, four of them from shootings inside the
camp following a private settling of scores. One man died, and two others had to be evacuated by planes to a hospital in Kenya. Outside the stuffy hospital tent that passed for an emergency room, a weary Dr. Claudia Kessler of France’s kamikaze medical aid group, Doctors Without Borders, said that the violence makes it too dangerous for relief workers to venture outside their own secure compounds after dark. “We lose quite a lot of patients at night simply because we cannot be here,” she added.
The spillover of Somalia’s violence also worries the Kenyan government, which in the 1960s fought border skirmishes with its neighbor. Always uncomfortable with the large Somali minority living in eastern Kenya, officials now blame Somali refugees for an increase in
violent crime in Nairobi, the capital. And although Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi has delivered speeches urging compassion for Somalis, his government frequently rounds up Somalis living in Nairobi and ships them to the UN refugee camps.
But the Somali crisis has also blemished the records of governments and officials elsewhere. After a three-hour tour of Mogadishu last week, British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd acknowledged that the world had failed to react fast enough to the disaster. And although Ottawa has already given $17.8 million in food and humanitarian aid to Somalia and pledged
$50 million in additional aid to the region, not all federal officials appear to be aware of the extent of the country’s anguish. In July, Arnold Johnsen, an expulsions officer with Employment and Immigration, refused an appeal by two Somali sisters who wanted to remain in Canada on humanitarian grounds. The women argued that they were victims of the civil war. But in his written response, Johnsen said that he did “not believe that any unusual, undeserved or disproportionate hardship would be caused if they are removed from Canada,” adding that “the interim government is currently working to resolve any chance of certain privations.”
But the interim government referred to by Johnsen is headed by Ali Mahdi Mohamed, who now controls a small section of northern Moga-
dishu but is clearly weaker than the faction of the United Somali Congress led by Gen. Mohamed Farrah Aidid. Mahdi’s authority is questionable in even the parts of Somalia he purports to control, although he maintains the charade of governing the chaotic country through such gestures as appointing a minister of education in a country where there are no functioning schools. As the pace of international aid picks up, it is becoming numbingly clear that a disaster of epic proportions has gripped a land without government—or hope.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.