WORLD

WINGS OF HOPE

ANDREW BILSKI September 28 1992
WORLD

WINGS OF HOPE

ANDREW BILSKI September 28 1992

WINGS OF HOPE

CANADA JOINS AN INTERNATIONAL AIRLIFT OF SUPPLIES TO FAMINE-STRICKEN SOMALIA

WORLD

It was dusk by the time laborers finished loading 291 sacks of cornmeal onto a rickety truck parked on Bardera’s dirt runway. Nearby, the five-man Canadian crew of a Hercules C-130 cargo plane, which flew the relief supplies to the southern Somali town earlier that day from Nairobi, Kenya, worked frantically in the sweltering heat to repair an engine problem before nightfall. “Don’t worry,” a relief official reassured the Canadians, pointing to ragtag bands of teenagers squatting on the desert floor, AK-47 assault rifles slung over their shoulders. “If you have to stay here tonight I will supply you with armed guards.” As darkness engulfed the airstrip, Capt. François Pelletier of Asbestos, Que., climbed into the cockpit of the giant olive-green plane. There was a collective sigh of relief among the Canadians as the engines started, and Pelletier took off for Nairobi. The Kenyan capital is only an hour and 40 minutes away by air—but it is light-years from the horrors engulfing the most pitiful corner of Africa.

Last week, Canada joined the United States, Germany, France and Belgium in a massive, and potentially dangerous, airlift to bring emergency aid to droughtand war-stricken Somalia. A team of 70 Canadian airmen, cargo handlers and technicians, including Pelletier and his crew, began ferrying food and other relief supplies out of Nairobi in two Hercules planes for the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN World Food Program. By week’s end, the Canadians had flown at least 510 tons of cornmeal, rice, beans, cooking oil, high-protein biscuits, soy flour and sugar to starving Somalis in the coastal capital of Mogadishu and the smaller southern towns of Belet Huen, Baidoba, Bardera and Hoddur. The Canadian airlift is scheduled to last 90 days, longer if needed. And as part of a new 3,500member UN peacekeeping force, Canada is

sending 750 troops to northeastern Somalia by late October to protect the distribution of relief supplies there. “The relief effort is something we look forward to,” said Lt.-Col. John Jensen of Trenton, Ont., chief of the Canadian airlift in Nairobi. “We get a lot of satisfaction knowing we are helping these people.”

In the anarchy that has prevailed since rebels ousted dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in January, 1991, hundreds of thousands of Somalis have perished from drought and civil war. UN officials say that two million Somalis from a population of seven million could starve to death unless more aid reaches the needy. While the World Food Program estimates that

62,000 tons of food is needed each month, current aid efforts are providing only half that amount. Meanwhile, distribution of aid remains a difficult and dangerous task in the warravaged countryside, where armed militiamen loyal to rival warlords continue to clash despite a truce. Last Friday, the United States suspended relief flights to Belet Huen after a bullet struck one of its cargo planes on the ground.

Another problem is the mass migration of starving rural dwellers to cities and towns in search of food, where feeding centres barely cope with demand. Outside Bardera, about 400 km west of Mogadishu, one day last week,

Habiba Moali stood covered by a tattered piece of cloth and clutching a wooden basket. The 60year-old woman from Rahol village was one of about 300 exhausted people straggling into the town on Sept. 16. She said that she and her five children had walked for five days in the grueling heat. “If I can find food in Bardera I will stay,” she murmured with a blank look in her eyes. “Otherwise I will just have to go back to my home.”

At the feeding centre, a desperate scene

unfolded as local relief officials supervised the distribution of new supplies. Standing atop white sacks of cornmeal flown in on a Canadian plane earlier that afternoon, they gave orders to workers and yelled at the surging throng of starving people to keep back. Young boys used sticks to whip emaciated women, many of them holding babies who sucked at their dry, shrivelled breasts. An elderly woman with hollow cheeks who tried to fight back was quickly knocked to the ground.

To help avert such ugly scenes and discourage a starving rural population from flocking to the larger centres, the World Food Program last week began airdrops of food to remote villages. “I believe this is a turning point in the humanitarian assistance because for the first

time it is reaching the people in the rural areas,” said Mohamed Sahnoun, the special representative of UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in Somalia, as he arrived in Bardera flanked by armed guards. “But it is still lacking. We still need more.”

Canadian diplomats say that the Somali crisis can be resolved only through a political settlement. But the warring factions that are asserting control over various parts of the country seem unable to stop the internecine warfare. Said Christopher Liebich, an official at the Canadian High Commission in Nairobi: “In many cases the warlords can’t control their people.” Sgt. Jim Robertson, a flight engineer from Murray Harbour, P.E.I., said that Somalia presents greater challenges for aid workers than Eritrea and Ethiopia, where he had previously participated in famine relief. “This relief operation is quite different because of the local strongmen,” said Robertson. “It’s not clear whether the food is getting to the right people.”

Outside the sprawling military barracks in Bardera, gaunt children sat on a pile of rubble. Inside, Gen. Mohamed Farrah Aidid, who claims to control two-thirds of Somalia, sat on a thin cushion on the neatly carpeted floor of a two-storey white villa. Aidid appealed for more international aid, saying that 80 per cent of Somalis are not getting enough food. But Aidid made it clear that, except for 500 Pakistani peacekeepers that he had already agreed could be deployed in Mogadishu, he did not welcome more UN soldiers. “There’s no need for any more troops,” he said. “We consider this a Somali problem.” Aidid’s main rival, Ali Mahdi Mohamed, approves of the UN troops and wants them increased to 10,000. But diplomatic observers say that he assumes that the presence of peacekeepers would strengthen his bitterly disputed claim to Somalia’s presidency.

But politics does not fill empty stomachs. And in Doblay, a dusty village about 25 km northeast of Bardera, food, not sovereignty, was the primary concern of hungry residents. As relief workers last week dished out cornmeal to 500 people, Nuney Net Alio spoke to a nurse about the health of her five-year-old son, Nuray, who clung to her leg. She has already lost her other two children to starvation in Bardera, where the family fled after Barre’s troops looted their village and stole their livestock last winter. “We saw our relatives die in front of us,” said the desperate young mother. “We don’t have any hope in life.” The Canadian airlift came too late for most of Alio’s family, but it could make the difference for Nuray and many other desperate Somalis.

ANDREW BILSKI with MICHAEL GEORGY in Bardera

MICHAEL GEORGY